Published on March 18th, 2016 | by Rhea Wolf0
Rhea Wolf Looks Over THE BRIDGE
As I approach the bus stop I see some kid standing on the 205 overpass, leaning dangerously way out over the railing while a woman shouts—too far away to make him stop, her words swallowed by darkness and the relentless noise of cars streaming down the freeway below.
I have Stella on my back and Mara is walking ahead of me. I wonder what’s going on and if my kids notice the scene. I wonder if it is safe, but then cross the street anyway to wait for the bus.
I ease Stella off of my back and down onto the bench seat in the bus shelter. Mara plops down beside her, as the kid and his mom return from the bridge. He has a skateboard and appears to be about the same age as Mara. His mother’s eyes are lined with black, and she peers at her son with fury and disappointment, a look I have felt on my own face many times before. The disappointment speaks more to her whole experience of life than to her child, like she’s been yelling at a relentless, unforgiving wind that keeps blowing down the houses she builds.
I turn away, wanting not to stare, wanting to give her space so she can deal with what’s happening. In turning, I notice another child, a little girl who must be about five, same age as Stella, dressed in pink and sitting obediently, sweetly on the other bus stop bench. The mother walks into the frame, commands her son to sit down next to the girl with a flick of her hand and don’t say another word until we get home I mean it.
I reach into the bag on my shoulder and pull out a book for Mara who begins reading it out loud to her sister, my daughters displaying a rare moment of sibling cooperation, or perhaps choosing to ignore what is happening as a form of protection. I am standing closer to the other woman’s children than my own. I am wondering how to pour love into this scene—whatever this scene may be. Whatever is happening, I want to be as present and loving as possible. But already I feel the regret, the tight chest of shame, the voices rising up in me, filled with self-judgment, who are you to interfere? A mother like you? You have no right—
I shake them out of my head and say out loud, this looks like a scary situation, to the mom who has been pacing back and forth between the curb and her belligerent son, muttering this is the last time. You gonna kill yourself? I’m done. I’ll call your counselor tomorrow and tell her I’m done you can go back into foster care I can’t do this seven years of this you don’t want to live? I can’t do this and he pushes back I don’t care so what I’ll go off the bridge over there who cares? His expression goes from mocking to blank to threatening, and he is only eight maybe nine like my Mara. Mara, my own child, who said to me four months earlier that she too wanted to die, to jump off a building.
Why do all these children want to die? Like I wanted to die, like I wanted to die when I was eight.
This looks like a scary situation is what I said to the mother and she said you don’t know what it’s like at home and I’m tired of getting stared at all the time by people who don’t know, she throws her head back to point at the others who are waiting for the bus with us, calling me the worst parent in the world but you don’t know what it’s like, seven years of this I can’t do it anymore. Her black-rimmed eyes are narrow slits of desperation and rage.
The daughter pops off the bench saying, Mommy while drawing closer to her pale, jittery mother. She reaches her arms out toward her for a hug, a touch, a kiss, which the mother offers freely, transforming completely what shall we do tomorrow baby? Go get those beautiful pink shoes you wanted? A quick kiss on the lips, the daughter goes lightly back on her toes to the seat next to the monster brother who immediately nails the edge of his skateboard into his angel sister’s leg. Ohhhhhhh she cries out, but instantly silences her voice, rubs her leg and stifles her tears.
The mother advances give me that skateboard. (No.) Give it. (No.) Give it. Now she leans over him, even though she’s only about five feet tall, she stands over the boy’s barely smaller body on the bench and shoves her words down at him you are lucky we’re here and there are other kids here and I don’t want to subject them to anything, and he puts his hands in front of his face don’t hit me, don’t hit me, his voice is mocking but edges on a real feeling.
She says again give me that skateboard and grabs it out of his hands. He instantly leaps up, almost upon her but then jumps to her right, out of her grasp into the grassy field in back of the bus shelter. Grabbing a black plastic bag someone discarded in the day’s haste, he puts it over his head and begins dancing a dangerous rebellion against his mother and the world.
Get that off your head she shrieks at him, but the dance continues with mother joining in, as opponent or savior, trying to rescue him while fighting him, until the bus comes and all of us—the two mothers, the four children, and the other paralyzed spectators of family disaster—file into the open mouth of the bus, into harsh light, out of the dark. I try to catch the eye of the son as he throws the plastic bag off his head and back to the ground, but he’s running to get on the bus, grabs his skateboard out of the mother’s hands as he does. I try to catch the eye of the little girl, who is already learning how to stay quiet and be sweet, sweet, sweet, but she is running to her mother’s arms. I turn to the mother and don’t wait to catch her eye. I walk behind her and say to the back of her head, being a mother is hard. I hope you get some peace. I really do. Mothering is so hard, and so is being a kid today, and I say it as nonchalantly as I can with all the love I feel for my children, for her, for all the mothers, for her children, for all the children.
By the time we get home, I am crying, but not too much. I ask my daughters are you okay? That was pretty intense at the bus stop, huh?
Mara says, We’re okay mom, and wants it to be over at that, but I keep on I know it might have been scary—I begin. But Mara interrupts.
What was scary? They were just arguing! I can tell that she is scared and sees me crying and wants to hide in her book. And I can’t tell them yet, I can’t, that I am thinking do you remember when it was like that? When life was always threatening and volatile and none of us knew if we would survive? I can’t tell them yet, because the pain is still much too large for my voice.
Then Stella says, yeah, that boy was just mad and his mother was trying to keep him safe, but he was mad and he kept on just saying no and being dangerous and he was being not safe.
I go and pull her onto my lap on our couch and say yeah, he was pretty mad. It seems like that family was having a really hard time. I hold her on my lap, rocking slightly for a few more moments and we’re all quiet. And then she sighs and slides off into her land of imagination on the floor, to her tiny animal figures with their tiny, quiet voices. Mara reads and I sit breathing in the quiet, breathing in this present joy and the hard past too.
I am the calm, loving mother who protects and cherishes my children, and I am the furious drunk mess of emotion who did not know what she was doing or how to be a mother, who couldn’t take everything life was giving her, who couldn’t take it anymore. Like the mother at the bus stop had said.
Soon I gather these children for pajamas, teeth brushing, stories, sleep. We are reading a story together called To catch a mermaid which features a mother who is killed by a tornado. The story is profoundly dark for a children’s book. But then, children’s books often are—violent and terrifying trips through the dark woods or encounters with villains who try to kill the orphans, a trainwreck of miserable circumstances and horrible fates being bravely accepted and sometimes overcome. After the last really last I mean it last chapter, we turn the lights off. Stella is already asleep. Mara asks me to scratch her back, and after the wiggles and the last words she can’t save until morning, her breath becomes heavy, slow, deep, and she’s asleep.
I wait for the telltale limb-twitches that tell me she’s asleep enough for me to get up from in between them. In the bathroom I brush my teeth, splash some cold water on my face, dry it off on the towel. Then I reach for the thing that brought me back from the edge. My antidepressants.
Pills are not healthy solutions in my various social circles. Big pharma is one of a number of enemies, such as corporations and two-party politicians and capitalism. I spent most of my life trying so hard to be sane. Therapy, retreats, self-help books, spiritual practices, chanting, journaling, shamanic healing, artistic expression, collaging, breathing exercises, more therapy, prayer. I would self-medicate with alcohol, cigarettes, weed, cutting myself—anything but a prescription.
Now I take the lowest dose of an old-school variety of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. I chose it through muscle-testing and intuition. I got lucky; it works. Since Mara was six and Stella three, I have been released from my sentence as the terrible mother. I truly could not imagine that this transformation was possible. But here I am now. I put the small pills in my hand, my hand to my mouth, faucet on, water cupped in palm to mouth, and swallow.
I look in the mirror. There’s no taking away the past, but perhaps there is such a thing as resurrection—to live again after dying. I think it might happen all the time, not just once, if you allow it. That’s what I’m trying to do.
This piece originally appeared in Rhea Wolf’s self-published chapbook, Children of Medusa, which is available for purchase from her website. Her children’s names have been changed in this writing, to protect their privacy.