By Karen Dempsey
The ten-year-old lies face down on her bed, trying not to cry, clenched in a hot coil of anger. The day has not gone as planned.
I lie beside her, pressed to the wall so I will not make actual contact. She has beckoned me into the room with her grievous moans, waved me closer when I offered her space.
She wants me as near as possible. She does not want me to brush against her. She wants me, she says into her pillow, to help her. She wants me, she says, to do nothing. She does not want me to speak or to be silent. She wants to cleave me to her side. She wants me to disappear.
It is some small, insurmountable slight by a friend that has brought us here. She needs to move past it, we know. We don’t know how she will do so. She is normally better at the “moving past” thing. With adolescence upon us, it’s grown more complicated.
I put a tentative hand on her back. She flinches it away. Hugs aren’t welcome.
I touch a wisp of her hair. “STOP.”
I wish that she would cry. That would be easier, I think. But I remember the feeling—the not wanting to give in, in the face of such unpredictable emotion. Crying over nothing, over everything. I would cry in the shower to hide my inexplicable weeping. But my mother could always tell, even hours later. She would study my face, give me wide berth, and ask, eventually, “Are you alright?” I would be enraged and relieved that she could read me so well.
Sometimes, but not usually, it helps to say to the ten-year-old, “What is it?” or “I’m sorry you’re sad.” Once I asked her, in a calmer moment, if there is anything that helps. She said one thing that helps is when I say, “Oh, sweetie.”
I say, “Oh, sweetie.” It doesn’t help.
I study her small, angry frame, too slight to hold onto so much emotion, to steer it. It doesn’t seem fair. Looking at her tensed little shoulder blades, I remember something. “X marks the spot,” I say to myself, silently, and I trace a criss-cross on her back. “Dot. Dot. Dot.” I think, pressing my fist against her lightly. She exhales. “Lines go up, lines go down, lines go all around. Spiders crawling up your back. Elephants walking down your back.” Later, I will research the strange rhyme—the variations passed down through the years. My daughter’s preferred version differs from the one I learned decades ago, taking a grotesque turn, and she knows I don’t like this part but I keep reciting silently, my hands pantomiming the lines that always made her laugh. “Crack an egg on your head and the yolk runs down; stab a knife in your back and the blood runs down.”
I hesitate, not sure if I’ve missed something. “Finish,” she says, and I think I hear a smile in her voice.
I say the end out loud, puffing a cool breath on the back of her neck. “Tight squeeze cool breeze now you’ve got the shivers!”
She snorts and rolls over. “It’s shiveries, mom,” she says. She is laughing and crying, the rage-spell broken, the tears falling free. She threads her lengthening fingers through mine; measures our hands. Hers are catching up but she still has some room to grow. She lifts her shining eyes—enormous dark lakes of future tears.
“It’s shiveries,” she says again. “But you got the rest right.”
Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her on Twitter.