How do you say such words to your children?
Some time in the next week I have to tell my children that I am moving down the street, that they will split their time, henceforth, between their home and another, smaller, unfamiliar space.
I can usually think of the right words, but when I try to rehearse this speech in my imagination, there’s a blank where the words should be.
“We’ve decided that …”
“This is really difficult to explain …”
There are no words that can soften the blow of the action, an action for which I alone bear responsibility. But words of some kind, inadequate as they will be, must be spoken between now and April 18th because it is happening: the decision has been made; the couples therapist has been politely dismissed; the children’s names are there in black and white as co-occupants on the lease; cash has been put down; the keys are ready to be handed over. The telling, the worst part, is saved for last.
Should it be tomorrow, before we host family and friends for a Passover seder? Or the next day, after the last day of spring camp? Or on Sunday, after the run to Trader Joe’s? Or next week? Why ruin Spring Break? Tell them as soon as possible, counsels one therapist. Don’t tell them too soon, counsels the other. Should we sit all together on the sofa? Too claustrophobic, says one shrink. Should we walk and talk on the beach? Too exposed, says the other.
Coming into the office in the state I’m in is deeply uncomfortable, but interacting with students, the familiar rhythms of seminars and office hours, also soothes me. Yesterday, I walked down the stairs to my 9:00 am graduate seminar at a few minutes after nine. I’d just splashed my face with cold water in the restroom and my eyes were puffy and bloodshot. I had decided, surveying my face in the mirror as I washed my hands, that the only option was to walk into the classroom with a chin-up-shoulders-back-this-is-just-how-my-face-looks bravura. They’re all first-year graduate students. They don’t know me. I might have allergies!
As I psych myself up on the way down the stairs, a young woman in a neatly tucked and folded hijab (the way I could never get mine to stay when I visited Iran as a teenager) greets me warmly as we pass each other on the staircase.
“Hi!” she exclaims. She doesn’t look familiar and I look at her blankly.
“I was in your class a few years ago …” she explains shyly.
“Oh! Which one?” I ask.
“English 10 something? … I’m back for grad school now,” she continues, “… not in English,” she adds sheepishly, “… in cinema and media studies.”
“That’s wonderful!” I say.
“It’s really good to see you again,” she says.
“Likewise,” I say. I ask her to remind me of her name and when she does I wish her well.
The exchange galvanizes me. I can do this, I tell myself.
The seminar begins with a spellbinding presentation. This young graduate student can already command a room. She’s speaking in complete, beautifully composed sentences but she’s not reading from her notes. She’s making eye-contact with everyone around the table. She’s advancing a risky interpretation, and the other students are fairly falling over themselves in their eagerness to respond. It’s a pleasure to witness. There’s not much for me to do.
I have one auditor in the class, a middle-aged Chinese exchange student. She comes over to me during the break and explains in halting English that she’s having trouble understanding Paradise Lost. I’m sympathetic.
“But,” she says in awe, gesturing to the other students, “they understand it!”
“None of us really understand it,” I confess, thinking that she needs reassurance.
But she’s not despondent; she’s delighted.
“I love listening to them talk!” she exclaims, and I nod; I know just what she means.
After class I have to give an oral exam. The student, who confided to me recently that she almost didn’t apply to graduate school because of her fear of oral exams, rises to the occasion. Afterwards, as I hug her, her eyes shine with tears of joy and relief.
To my surprise, it’s raining when I walk out of the building. It feels better crying in the rain than crying in the sun.
At home, after an energetic game of catch with a whoopee cushion, I collapse on the sofa. The elder sidles over.
“Are you depressed?” he asks gently, throwing his arms around me.
“Just a little down today,” I say, my heart sinking at the thought that he even thinks to ask such a question.
“I love you,” I add.
“I love you too!” he says, giving me a big squeeze and burying his face in my neck. “I will always, always love you,” he adds.
“Why do people have weddings?” the younger asks me brightly after I stumble down the stairs groggily and sink into the chair next to her at the dining table this morning.
“Well, when people get married they want to celebrate with their family and friends,” I explain slowly, “and the wedding is the celebration.”
“No, it’s not,” she says.
“You have a wedding,” she continues, “so that you can be more together with your family. That’s why you get married.”
“Well, you can still be together with your family if you’re not married …” I begin, haltingly.
“But,” she interrupts, “but you get married to be more together …”
“Yes, but …” I’m about to launch into a disquisition on how togetherness and marriage are not necessarily synonymous, but she’s already moved on.
“Mom, take off your glasses!” she commands.
As I do, holding my glasses in front of me, she stares and, laughing, exclaims, “You look like a cheater!”
“What?” I say, woozily. “What did you say?”
He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved laughs softly. “A cheetah. She’s saying you look like a cheetah because of the mottled pattern on your glasses frame.”
“Oh. Oh, right,” I say.