By Lorri Barrier
My daughter is difficult. I don’t say this to her, but I feel the weight of it as I bend to pick up the contents of my purse, which she just dumped on the floor. She asked to use my iPod, and when I said no, her anger attacked quickly and sharply, like a coiled snake. I look into her eyes as she stands over me, little blue springs wound tightly, too tightly. “That’s it,” I say calmly. “You can’t go to the sleepover tomorrow.” She struts off to her room and yells back at me, “I will go tomorrow! I will!”
This is a familiar path for us, and I dislike walking it. It is not my nature to be heavy-handed, yet my seven-year-old daughter demands it of me. The hours between this evening and tomorrow evening will be an emotional bundle of push and pull. I know without question that her will is stronger–I have always preferred a Zen approach to life, but she insists on pushing me out of my comfort zone again and again.
She begins the following day asking if she can go to her friend’s house that night after all. I remind her that I told her no, remind her that she yelled at me the day before and dumped out my purse. She smiles as if this is funny. “I know you will let me go, Mommy,” she says with certainty. “You’ve forgiven me before.”
By midday, I’m worn thin. I’m beginning to second-guess myself, thinking that perhaps the punishment is too harsh for the crime. I actually want nothing more than for her to just go to the sleepover and give me some peace. But if I relent now, my word is worth nothing. Even though the weather has been terrible lately, I think it will be best for us both to get out of the house.
She walks beside me quickly, past the barn, through the old gate, down the hill toward the creek. It is the first clear day we’ve had in nearly a week. The fields are saturated and sloshy. My daughter and I both stop and stare, gaping at the swollen creek. “If you don’t let me go, I’ll jump in!” my daughter blurts.
A breeze lifts my hair. There’s a hint of spring in the February chill. The sunlight glints off the water and I have to squint.
“I mean it,” she says again and looks at me sideways, her arms crossed.
I stand still, unsure of what to do. I don’t think she understands the gravity of what she’s saying. I know she wants to say the worst thing. The thing that will make me change my mind. I look down into the water, the color of rust at its deepest. Usually, this is an easy crossing. Hop one, two, three on large rocks and we’re on the other side. Today, the crossing rocks are nowhere to be found; water spills over the banks and into the pasture. What was a pleasant waterfall, a hidden fairy place, is transformed into a torrent.
“It looks deep,” I say to her, as calmly as I can muster. “It’s been raining a long time.” I am deliberately motionless–she is a skittish animal, and I don’t want to frighten her toward her threat. I worry that one wrong move from me and in she goes. Her arms remain crossed. Her body stiff. “It’s probably cold,” I add, wishing I’d brought a jacket. We stand in silence a few more moments, neither of us moving. My daughter is pouting, but she doesn’t lunge forward. Finally, I shrug and walk up the hill away from her.
It takes tremendous effort to turn my back on her, even though I am angry. I am reasonably sure she will not jump, as much as I’m sure the squishy earth really is solid beneath my feet. Still, I am her mother. As I walk, I imagine I hear the splash of her body and her muffled cry against the rush of water. I see myself running, getting there just in time to pull her soaking and coughing from the creek. I also imagine getting there too late, and the horror of pulling her lifeless body from the twisting current. I have to look back.
She’s still there at the edge, now squatting, turning over muddy stones and throwing them in. I sit down at the top of the hill and tell myself she lost privileges for bad behavior. I can’t give in. It was her choice, and now the consequences are in motion. Even if those consequences are deeply unpleasant for me as well. There will be other sleepovers. There will be other good times.
My son has come outside, he trudged toward her. He’s only slightly taller than she is, though he is two years older. He yells up at me, “Mama! She’s going to jump in!” I shrug my shoulders, feigning indifference. I lie back in the wet grass, exhausted from the drama.
“Mama!” He yells again. “She’s putting in her feet!” I hear her squeal and laugh, yes, it’s cold. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, feeling a bit of tension release. Soon, I hear both of them running up and down, rocks splashing against water, happy sounds. Sounds of forgetting, sounds of being present in the moment, the way only children can be.
When my daughter was a toddler, we uncurled her angry little balled fists and said, “Hands are not for hitting.” We thought it would just take time, but we were still doing it when she was three and four. At five, she kicked her door so hard during a tantrum the knob went through the drywall. I covered the yawning hole with a collage of family pictures–smiling faces masking the evidence of her anger. Her oldest brother nicknamed her “Tiny Terror,” though she’s not so tiny anymore.
Years of dance have made her solid and muscular. Years of defiance have made her iron. I remember the spring she had strep throat just a few days before her dance recital. I took her to the doctor, and he asked me if she’d take pills or a shot. “Give me the shot in my leg,” she said, answering for herself. She barely flinched, and then danced a day later on a bruised leg I knew then (if I hadn’t known before) that she was made of something far different from what is at my core. She has always been a tornado, a lightning bolt, a surging storm. She summons her powers easily, without hesitation. And this isn’t the first time I’ve thought, guiltily, that if she’d been my first, she’d be my only.
I tell myself that her temper will serve her well, if she can only learn to reign it in a bit. She is everything I want to be when I need to stand up, speak my mind, and not back down. But not now, I think. Dammit, not now. I want to tell her to save it, save this passion, for when she needs it. Save it for when it matters.
I sit up, my back damp from the grass. They have moved from the creek’s edge to a copse of trees. They are busy in play, jumping, laughing, enjoying the day
“I have to go home,” I yell to them. “I’m cold.”
“Awww” they say in unison, but run toward me, red-faced and out of breath. She is carrying her wet, glittery pink shoes in her hands, barefoot in winter.
Barely a minute passes before she asks, “So, can I go now? I’ve been good!” I have to laugh to keep from crying.
Later that night, she makes a bed on the floor of her brothers’ room. I sit reading in the quiet, and unbidden, the tears come. Great wracking sobs of release. I wake her, or perhaps she wasn’t asleep.
“Mama, why are you crying?” she asks in earnest. I am sobbing too hard to answer. She climbs onto my lap and drapes her arms around me. “You are a good mommy,” she says. I hear her, but I don’t believe it. I am plagued by thoughts of what I could have done differently years ago. This is the psychic work of mothers: try to make sense of things, navigate through the mistakes, create a better reality. I want a rewind button, a replay view. I want to analyze everything from the day she was born to the present, and see where I first went wrong.
I wonder what memories she will retain of these troubled times, these angry outbursts and the outrageous pageantry surrounding them. What images will be painted inside her of who I am, and what we are together? I think of the images now embedded in my psyche: the rushing water, her blue, glaring eyes, the chilly breeze tangling her dark blonde hair, her stiff body poised to jump, the moment I turned and walked away, trusting nothing but my instincts that it would not end badly. I sigh and hold her close, letting her fall asleep on me like an infant, chest to chest, her heart in sync with mine.
Lorri Barrier lives with her husband and three children in Mt. Pleasant, NC. She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC. Her previous essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,” “The F-word,” and “Unplugged.”