By Joni Koehler
I found this game on the Internet. The object of the game is to find three or more of the same colored squares together and click on them with the mouse. If you click, they disappear and make room for other squares to pair with their red, blue, yellow, or green teammates. Each level has more squares, goes faster, and is harder to complete.
I have been playing the game all summer, moving the mouse back and forth at a leisurely pace during the early levels, growing more and more frantic with the mouse as the game intensifies until, at level nine, I am clicking the mouse button in a nonstop motion, arcing the mouse back and forth across the mouse pad. When I lose, I take a deep breath and start over, glad to be back at the beginning, where it’s easy and things move slowly. At the beginning, I don’t have to think, and that is the real attraction of the game.
The game does nasty things to our computer, downloading data miners every couple of minutes. My husband, who knows a thing or two about computers, says that the miners could ruin our computer, that we can’t afford to buy a new one, that I really should stop playing the game. I know he’s right, but the risks have been worth that luxurious feeling of thinking about nothing. If I had to take stock, here are the contents of my summer:
Thinking about: nothing.
Doing: nothing (e.g., watching TV, playing video games).
In my brain: nothing.
What I want to accomplish: nothing.
What I have actually accomplished: surprisingly, more than you would imagine.
Two things startle me. The first is that I have been able to keep up this sort of vacant existence for so long. I said goodbye to my sixth-grade reading students seven weeks ago, and I usually rebound from the need to vegetate much, much sooner. If boredom doesn’t drive me, then outside forces take over. The kids need to be driven to baseball practice, the eaves need painting, someone wants food, or I need to work to prepare for the next school year. All of it is important and necessary and my role in life, and normally after a week or two, I plunge myself into the minutiae of daily life without resentment and with a renewed vigor. This summer, I’ve done all the feeding and the driving and the schoolwork, just as I always do. But I haven’t been there.
The entire time while I was shopping for my son’s baseball cleats, my mind was skimming across the abyss, hoping we could hurry up and finish so I could catch Intimate Portrait when we got home.
At our summer in-service about poverty and diversity at school, I was daydreaming the entire time about what my strategy would be if I were a contestant in The Amazing Race. See, before I went, I’d study all the maps in the whole world and learn how to talk to taxi drivers in three or four Romance languages and a couple of Asian ones, too. I’d make my husband drive places fast, and I would practice navigating from the back seat. We’d drive in downtown Houston during rush hour to practice being civil to one another in high-stress situations. We would be the nicest couple ever to compete and would not do one mean or cutthroat thing to the other people. We would win the million dollars with the power of our preparation and winning personalities. I went to the trouble of daydreaming only to keep myself upright in the chair.
The second surprise is that nobody seems to notice my mental absence. We’re in the car driving to the orthodontist, and my son is talking about dove hunting season, and I’m saying “Uh-huh” periodically, but I’m not listening at all, and he doesn’t know the difference. I lie across the bed and listen to my husband discuss his job, and I barely keep up. He has to ask if I’m listening once or twice, but I don’t think he realizes that even when I’m looking straight at him, even when I am asking pertinent questions, I’m not there.
He never comes home from work at the end of the day and says, “It looks like you sat around all day and didn’t do anything. Is this how you want to spend your summer?” I lose my planner, which I refer to as my brain, and nobody thinks it is odd that I have lost my brain. Nobody says, “Mother/Wife/Daughter, how very odd that you would lose your brain. You usually have your brain together.”
And then I get mad. I tell my husband I’m sad. I tell him I feel disregarded. He says sorry. He makes the kids say sorry. But it’s all a ruse. My anger is a faÃ§ade; I’ve wielded it to keep them from seeing that I want to do nothing, think nothing, and have nothing to stop me from doing nothing, including people. It’s easy to lash out, because I’m the mom, and they are afraid to call me on it.
My mom can loaf with the best of them. She can spend a whole week doing nothing but eating Wheaties and reading romance novels, with an occasional change of clothing to make people think she is moving around more than she actually is. She can play penny poker with a six-year-old for half a day. If I were playing penny poker with a six-year-old, it would be something. I would have to concentrate to keep from losing my temper and to keep people from knowing that I am not especially patient at poker or six- year-olds. But she is patient at both, and for her, it’s nothing.
She tried to teach me the art of blankness for a lot of years but had never been successful. It isn’t that I’m a bad student. I would have loved to pass the course, but she’s not the only one from whom I inherited traits. The familial penchant for obsessive compulsive disorder, though somewhat muddied by my mother’s coolness, has manifested itself in me as a type A personality with a side of anal retentiveness. So, technically, I knew how to do this “nothing” everyone kept talking about, but in practice I had spent very little time doing it. And I can now admit that for many years I only acted the role when it came time for nothing. Maybe I was still, maybe I was quiet, but on the inside, I was lying on a sunny beach with a scantily clad Viking lad. But now, I’m doing it. And I’m doing it for a lot longer than necessary. I could compete with a corpse.
Mom can dip into nothing at the drop of a hat, stay there for fifteen minutes, and return unblemished. That is her normal pattern. Over the years, though, there were times when I witnessed a prolonged retreat. She pulled into herself during times of extreme stress. When her sister died, she was mentally absent for a year or so. She did the chores, but every spare moment was poured into a Harlequin romance. She read hundreds of them, with the bad grammar, the identical plots. Their mindless drone kept her afloat in the aftermath. It was how she handled her grief.
I usually need a week or two to recover from the previous school year, and I am now five weeks past that deadline. There is a possibility that events of the last year have prolonged my coma. I could add a week of bone idleness for the unwanted changes at work that will add hours to my workload. Two weeks for the letter in the mail saying there is a nodule. A nodule and we would like to take another look before we remove both of your breasts and leave a cavernous maw in their place. Another week for when they sent the next letter saying sorry for the inconvenience, but there is nothing wrong with your breast. The technician thinks she may have dropped an olive from her lunch into your titty pictorial. Add a week for that phone call from my daughter in the middle of fifth period. “My best friend tried to kill herself and I had to stop her.” A day, no two, added on for the trip to the mental hospital, following in the wake of the red ambulance that carried her friend kicking and screaming to that unfamiliar place. My daughter’s frightened eyes, wide and so young. What does that add up to? Almost seven weeks. Three days short.
The other three days? There was extra stress because of the graduation. Have to have the right dress, send the invitations, plan the parties, the thank-yous, the college visits, the imminent leaving of your first child.
The imminent leaving of your first child, off to college, where she will almost certainly forget the way home. Where she will shush off to Vail on the first Thanksgiving with a kid named Rick, while we at home mourn her passing. The day I watched the Real World marathon for eight straight hours in my pajamas, did that have anything at all to do with the imminent leaving?
Am I trying to hold time at the end of my arm because I am afraid, terrified actually, that the wake of her absence will fill with … nothing?
I’ve done everything right. I worked all year to own my feelings, to acknowledge that the last homecoming parade, the last high school volleyball game, the last report card were sad to me. I have done my crying. My husband and son have not done theirs—and will not until she is gone—and I figured I would get a head start so I can help them through it. This is what a good mother does.
But I don’t feel up to helping them. I wonder if it is possible to die from having your kid go off to college. I have friends whose kids are in college. They don’t look dead, but they could be sort of half dead. Maybe all those gray-headed people wandering around the country in RVs are really half dead from their kids leaving. Maybe they sit on far hillsides with powerful telescopes and watch Junior at the office. “Mom,” Dad will say. “Come quick! He’s about to make his presentation!” It’s possible.
Maybe I’ll be the first. Only nobody will know. The local newspaper will write an article about my untimely demise. It will say:
“Joni Koehler died today. The cause of death was heart failure. Her husband stated that Joni was playing a computer game when she gave a sudden cry and collapsed on top of the keyboard. ‘They really should make level nine easier,’ said the stricken widower.”
There is a ring of being pregnant again to all of it. My emotions are all over the place. My daughter and I are walking through the mall, and I say I have a headache, and she says, “Just do what I do and don’t allow yourself to get a headache, because like I never succumb to the folly that is illness.” And I want to have this baby already. I want her out. She’s a bowling ball in my gut. Then, we’re walking through the store looking at bedspreads and I tell her, “That is a dependable bedspread right there. You can use it on your own little girl’s bed. It will last you a long time, so it’s worth a few extra dollars,” and I just want to throw myself on the floor and beg somebody to give me a little girl because I don’t have one anymore. It hits me in a startling wave like morning sickness, and I have to concentrate very hard on the E! True Hollywood Story to look like a normal person, not a forty-four-year-old woman clinging to the sales clerk’s leg, howling about babies.
Her leaving isn’t the only hard thing. It is the change in my role. From the moment she left my womb, my existence as Joni took a back seat to my existence as Amy’s mom. Society saw me that way, and so did I. It was difficult to go from being the one with the beautiful body to the one with the slack tummy and the oversized breasts that spewed milk without my knowledge or permission ten times a day. I grew into motherhood with grace. I endured the days when six of the seven bodily fluids ended up on my clothing, the telephone didn’t ring once, and I lay in wait for my husband to come home from work so I could follow him all over the house and talk and talk just to keep my head from exploding. I talked to my children, I read to them, I praised their childish creations, and I watched hundreds of ball games in which I had no interest. My children have turned out happy, reasonably intelligent, and well adjusted. However, they are about to turn out, both of them, and her leaving has reminded me of this.
I think it used to be enough that a woman raised her children. If she survived child rearing, society didn’t expect much more. She was then free to let her chins multiply and watch squirrels from her front porch. Now I think I’m supposed to do something else. When my son leaves in three years, I will be three years away from my fiftieth birthday. If Oprah and Maya Angelou are any gauge, I’m supposed to celebrate this new age and start sprouting wise pronouncements. I am supposed to grow into another role altogether, one where I know myself, lower my body fat, and achieve something worthwhile in my own right. Only, I don’t know anything about this “new” woman, and sometimes I feel the same sort of wide-eyed fright that I felt when I held my daughter in my lap for the first time, and she looked at me so helpless and trusting. I’m staring down the teeth of a waterfall, and I’d rather not.
So I go to my bedroom, because it’s Amazing Race time. Amy comes in and lies on my bed and we watch together. The contestants race to Russia, where they have to play hockey, drink vodka, and eat two pounds of caviar. The skinny women have great difficulty with the caviar; they say they’re sick and can’t possibly finish. They roll in agony on the floor and cool cloths are applied. The bowling moms suck that caviar down; they’ve smelled and tasted worse than this, endured worse than this. They leave their skinny counterparts in the dust. Amy turns to me and says, “You could do that, Mom.”
“You bet I could, but when Dad and I go, he’ll do all the eating. He’ll eat anything.”
“No, you and I should go, Mom.”
“Okay,” I say.
The contestants reach the pit stop for the day. The older Internet dating couple is last and they get eliminated.
“You’ll have to get in shape, though,” she says.
“Yeah, I will. I can do it, too. But you’ve got to be smart to win this game.”
“Yeah, we could win.”
And we do, every day. I’m sad that she’s leaving but I know it will be okay. I’ll get into shape and jump back into my life, and get smart, and learn the new languages I need, and read the maps, and sometimes we’ll still run the race together. We are the new women, she and I, and we can conquer hockey, whip caviar, and slay vodka. We can even beat level nine, if we want to. And that would be something.
Author’s Note: My daughter is now in her second semester of college. I will not lie. At first, I was glum; I was teary, prickly even. Now, I’m adjusting. Writing this piece was somewhat prophetic. My body fat is lower, and I am determined to accomplish something in my own right. I’m back on the
Joni Koehlerlives in a South Texas town. She is a sixth-grade teacher at the local school, a wife, the mother of two children, and an aspiring author.
Brain, Child (Summer 2005)