The Pink Post-it® Umbrella

by Devorah Lifshutz

On the morning that it happened the news reported that a Missouri man opened fire at a city council meeting and killed eight people. Glancing at the headline, I felt a twinge of smugness, albeit tinged with shame.

Look, I told myself, proof that you aren’t the craziest person on the planet – that there is someone else out there who’s got soul storms that rage wilder than your own.

I needed to remember that, because of it – my own internal attack of heavy weather. Unlike the Missouri man’s, my own tempest brought forth no damage unless you include the scars on the souls of my young son and myself.

The morning followed a pattern which seemed to be hardening into a template. The script was quite ordinary – just me struggling to get Danny, my 8-year-old son, out to the school bus, but somehow today our combined personalities, emotions and reactions crashed against each other in a giant thunderclap.

As I sat at my kitchen table doing postmortem on my outburst, I couldn’t figure it out. Why did I lose it? I was an experienced mom, a full-time stay at home. Danny was the fourth of five. I knew this territory: getting kids out in the morning, making their lunches, getting them onto their buses.

In my better moments, I could see that Danny was a beautiful boy with straight brown hair that fell upon his forehead in a fringe, and a little genius who brought home perfect report cards, and could add and subtract long columns in his head.

But then there was this other Danny, the Dr. Jekyll Danny, the Danny who, on this particular morning, had nearly driven me out of my mind.

On the video screen of my mind, I played back the morning. The wake up had gone well, normal, the usual way. I’d tiptoed into his bedroom, bent over his ear, whispering my own little wakeup song – Momma’s ringtone, I called it.

“Time to get up, time to get up, time to get up,” I sang over and over in a bouncy, melodic voice. He knew the song. He could even harmonize to it if he wanted too.

His eyes still shut, Danny took my hand into his and grasped it close. For a few minutes, I sat beside him on the bed, as rays of dim winter sunshine streamed in through the window behind us, but the morning was rolling along. I reminded Danny to get up, laid out his clothes for him. He dressed and showed up for breakfast right on time. A good omen, I told myself tentatively. On other mornings, Danny would just linger in under the covers until I’d dress him and rush him out the door.

This morning I had Cocoa Pops, his favorite. I thought, no brownie points for nutrition, though the package insisted that they contained fiber and vitamins.

”No,” he said rubbing his eyes, and turning his head away from the bright yellow box.

“C’mon,” I nudged. “It’s important to eat.”

No response.

Danny just sat in the kitchen chair, his head hanging down. He looked like someone on an airplane, trying to sleep sitting up.

I’d seen this before, this morning freeze up. Maddening, having one’s kid go on the blink like that without any reason. Unlike my laptop, there wasn’t anything to click or press to get him started. In my mind, I’d come to call this 8-year-old catatonia. Usually it went on for a few minutes, but then he’d wake up, get his coat on, and get to the bus. Today, the re-emergence was taking too long.

“C’mon, it’s getting late,” I said, an edginess creeping into my voice.

Still no answer.

According to the oversized kitchen clock, there were 10 minutes left until the bus, like 10 minutes to blast off or 10 minutes to doomsday. I was crazy with this—making sure that Danny got his little body onto the bus.

“Snack, what you want?” I asked, hoping the promise of a snack would rouse him from his seated slumber.

“Pretzels,” he mumbled, chewing the word with his breath.

I reached up into the cabinet. “No pretzels. How about cookies?” I offered, trying to paint over my tension with a fake June Cleaver voice.

“NO,” Danny yelled. “IF I DON’T GET THE PRETZELS, THEN I’M NOT GOING TO SCHOOL!!!”

Huh???? What on earth did pretzels have to do with going to school?

“Stop yelling,” I told Danny. “Say it nicely. I don’t get this.”

No response.

Danny slipped back in catatonia, just sitting, staring at nothing at all, thinking, I suppose, about pretzels – sticks, rounds, pretzel shapes, even honeycomb patterns these days, pretzel coatings, salt or sesame, whole wheat or white? Meanwhile, I was losing it…fast.

I glanced up at the clock.

“Danny. It’s time to go.”

Silence.

“Danny !!!! Go, now!” I yelled, as if the increased vocal volume causes the neurotransmitters in his brain to respond.

Danny did get up, but instead of going out the front door with his back pack and parka, he ran into the living room and landed on the couch.

“Go!” I yelled again, with a force that made my bones shake.

Nothing. What would it take to get this kid to snap into order?

“Danny, come here,” I said, lowering my tone a few octaves to sound like a general or a drill sergeant, at the very least.

Danny started running wild circles round our long dining room table.

“Come here,” I commanded. He refused to stop. That did it. I was now officially furious. My mind flashed to my neighbor Judy, half my age with nearly as many kids – how her son, Davy, two years Danny’s junior, was getting what Judy defined as “a little wild,”  grabbing his sisters Legos®, a misdemeanor in my book, and how Judy sent him into time-out without even  elevating her tone one decibel.

I could never get Danny to do that. I couldn’t get Danny to listen to me at all. Maybe it was Danny, I thought. He was defective, like Rosemary’s Baby or Damian, one of those monster kids you see in horror movies. Meanwhile Danny was circling faster and faster, and my fury was hitting new peaks.

“Danny, little s—,“ I yelled, using a word that I ordinarily censure and punish the use of with a pinch of hot pepper on the tongue. Danny just kept up his circles.

I picked up one of his favorite toys, a Playmobil® fire truck, and smashed it against the hard ceramic tiled floor causing the wheels to fly off the chassis.

“Go,”I yelled wildly. “Go.”

For a split second Danny stopped, frozen in place. I pushed the table toward him, sandwiching his body between the wall and the table. He was trapped, nabbed, captured. Then I lunged toward him, bracing my hands around the soft bones in his neck. For one very long second I thought of pressing hard, just squeezing the breath out of him. How easy that would be. His bones were still so soft, almost like chicken bones, but then I stopped myself, and lowering my grasp, anchoring my hands under his arm, I lifted him and his jacket and his backpack outside to the bus stop.

My mind was still on that bus – making that bus – as if that would somehow redeem the morning.

As we stood together outside in the cold February morning, my anger came spilling out in hard, painful words.

“Why do you do this to me?”

“The neighbors can hear you,“ Danny shot back.

“Who cares if the neighbors hear?” I snarled.

“Why do you do this to me????? Are you crazy????? Do you want to make me crazy?”

Danny burst into tears, sweet little boy tears. Suddenly I loved him again. He was my son, sweet Danny. I drew close to hug him, but he pushed me away. What did I expect? Then the bus honked. Danny got on sullenly without looking back.

That was it. For a long time, I stood at the bus stop, just staring out into space. My job was done. He made the bus, but why was this so hard. Was it me?

As I turned back into the house terrible questions racked my brain. Was I really like that man in Missouri – wild, capable of wild violence? Was I a child abuser? Was I inflicting permanent damage on my son? Was I unfit to be a mother?

For a long time I just sat in the kitchen staring into space. I felt numb, paralyzed. I really didn’t have a good answer, just a lot of bad feelings I would have loved to erase.

Maybe I could just pretend, I told myself, start all over, make-believe this hadn’t happened. Give Danny a big smile, prepare his favorite lunch when he got home and hope he just forgot. Yes, yes, feigned amnesia. Part of me was pleased with that idea but my great big superego conscience that had left me during those terrible moments not so long ago suddenly found its voice.

No, you can’t just make-believe. You’ve got to use this, to move forward, to do it better the next time.

An old Jewish teaching popped up in my head. Something I’d heard a million times, almost a cliché. A righteous person falls seven times and gets up. What did that mean? That a righteous person was a jack-in-the-box or one of those bloodied prize fighters?

Now suddenly the words made sense. The righteous person lost it, maybe even big-time. He messed up, screwed up, but he went back and tried again and again and again. Over and over, up and down. That was the process of life. And that was what made him righteous.

That was my job now, too, to get myself up again. To rise up, above this morning and to make sure it never happened this way again. I grabbed a black pilot marker and started writing.   “Mommy’s rising plan,” I called it. Mommy’s rules—not for Danny, but for myself.

On a hot-pink Post-it® square I wrote them down: No cursing. No throwing things. No calling children “crazy.” No strangling. If the child doesn’t cooperate, just wait and do nothing!!!!!

The rules were for me, to grab hold of, to remind me that even when things were at their craziest, I was the mommy and I had to keep a handle on myself. Besides, I had tools, leverage, lots of it. I could give and take away life, but I could also give and take away videos, play dates, Game Boy cartridges, Cheetos® and Doritos®, even the spicy ones.

I stuck up the Post-its® all over the place, on the fridge, on the front door, on my bedroom door, on the mirror, in my closet – everywhere. It didn’t matter that Danny would read them or anyone else for that matter. I needed them to grab on to when my anger threatened to carry me away. They were my little pink paper umbrellas, my shelter for the next storm.

*****

Author’s Note: I know this might sound laughable, Pink Post-its® for anger management, but the plan really works. The week after this happened Danny pulled his catatonia again and I grabbed a Post-it® and read it out loud, right in front of Danny and the other kids. They thought it was odd, but then again, they are used to an odd mother. The good news is that I calmed down, rattled off some consequences, some rewards and sent Danny off to school without causing him any harm, invisible or otherwise.

*****

Addendum: The pink Post-it® umbrella was not enough. A few months ago, following too many tantrums, Danny took a hammer to his MP3 player, and smashed it. After that I took him for evaluation with a neuropsychologist. After six hours of testing, she diagnosed ADD without the H – though she didn’t recommend medication – and something called attachment disorder which I later discovered was on the autistic spectrum. I freaked out at first, blaming myself for my son’s problems: Attachment disorder does sound like an indictment of the mother. Thank G-d Danny’s case appears to be relatively mild. What “attachment disorder” means, is that something is missing in my son’s psyche – the glue that should bind him to mother, to parents and to himself seems to be in short supply. Fortunately, through counseling, we can learn to build up Danny’s glue supply. Our therapist has taught us to be a lot gentler with Danny, who though chronologically a fourth grader, is emotionally still in nursery school. For his part, Danny seems happier and easier to live with. By the way, I don’t use the school bus anymore. Extravagant as it sounds, I send Danny to school by taxi. He can sleep a half an hour longer, and get out to school feeling calm and relaxed, and both he and I are happier for it.

Devorah Lifshutz is mostly a mom and an essayist, journalist and writing teacher.
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