Drop-offs. Pick-ups. The floss police. Never-ending appointments: physical therapy, haircuts, eye exam, dentist, pediatrician. School events. Make sure kids are picked up on time. Swim classes. Provide well-balanced meals. Check homework. Work on subtraction. Sign paperwork. Practice reading with Ellie while making sure Peter doesn’t burn down the house and Ethan does his Japanese homework and dinner doesn’t boil over on the stove and the dog gets fed. Bath time. Bedtime tantrums. One more cup of water. Cleaning up spills. Bathroom reminders. Weekend excursions. Play. Time for new shoes. Need to buy groceries. Laundry. Always laundry. Go, go, go.
The constant toiling of parenthood, exacerbated by only parenting. In between the blood, sweat, and tears there is happiness and a sense of purpose that makes it all worthwhile, but sometimes it’s difficult to ascertain in the thick of the toiling.
Marriage had its own share of tediousness. Listening to another human being. Understanding. Not understanding. Forgiving. Picking up socks. Making dinner. Companionship. Bickering. Never running out of things to talk about. Housekeeper. Scheduler. Idea-generator. Master of expectations and wallower in simmering resentment. Dreamer. Negotiator. Compromiser. Tugger and puller. Sharer of space and time and resources in an ongoing and delicate balancing act. Juggler extraordinaire.
In widowhood, more toiling. Funeral planner. Memory-keep-aliver. Taking flowers to the cemetery. Aching. Crying. Bone-crushing pain. Emptiness. Missing. Doing the job of two parents; doing all of it with a perpetual feeling of being left behind, alone. Must move on and act as if nothing happened while the world keeps spinning. Pretend to be normal and enjoy living a life that did not go as planned. And yet, despite all of the toiling, there is a deep love that has grown for him, for me, for our kids, and for the entire universe. Sometimes that feels confusing.
For some reason I expected adulthood to be the cruise control stage of life, but it has been anything but.
I rushed to pick-up Ethan after school on a typical day. Sometimes I have to arrange childcare as part of the complicated matrix of managing our busy schedule. But on this day I am there to get him, which is what I prefer to do. It’s why I had children–to be involved in their lives. Not being able to do these stereotypical parenting tasks is often a source of my despair, especially when those limitations have to do with my single parent situation. I still struggle with accepting the fact that I can’t be everywhere at the same time, and that I can’t be the same kind of mother I once was.
I waited in the hot sun near the gate while students walked out into their afternoon freedom. Several parents waited by the curb and a long line of cars clogged the one-way parking lot in front of the school. Ethan’s class was often one of the last to be released. I spotted him with his head in the clouds, the blue and orange shark backpack flapping against his back. He had his heavy lunchbox draped over one shoulder–I reminded him all of the time to no avail that he should put it in his backpack–and the weight of it gave him a lopsided lumber in his steps.
Seeing Ethan at the end of the school day feels just as precious as the days when I visited him in the NICU during his first two months of life. For 53 days I pumped breast milk every 1-3 hours around the clock and made the trip to the hospital morning and night. I methodically tracked ounces and minutes. I spent hours with his scrawny body pressed against my chest,tubes dangling off of him, and I didn’t dare move until a nurse wanted him back inside of his incubator. The toil and heartache of that experience was tempered only by the joy of being his mother and the sacred bond that immediately bound us together for the rest of our lives. I started motherhood having to ask permission to hold my child and was relegated to being practically a mere visitor during his stay in the NICU, but I was his mother in the only way that I could have been, which was to do the parental toiling that I was permitted to do. Each time I entered his room and peered into his isolette, I felt my breath catch in my throat, and I knew that he was worth it.
I felt the same way about the 2 lb. 15 oz. preemie as I do about the 8-year-old with jet black hair and a freckled nose.
Ethan saw me waiting for him and greeted me with a toothy smile. I could always tell by his expression whether it was a good or bad day.
On that day it was somewhere in the middle.
We walked to the car and ran through the important details: what did he learn, who did he play with, what his favorite moments were. So-and-so wanted to play handball instead of rock-hunting at recess, and that upset him. He also had to pull a card for talking during music class, but he informed me that it was outrageous that they force a scientist to sing and play instruments against his will.
At the car Ethan rifled through his lunchbox and declared how ravagingly hungry he was, wanting to know how much longer until dinner. We still had to pick up his siblings. He found half of his leftover sandwich and devoured it. Maybe he was right and I was wrong about keeping his lunchbox out of the backpack.
I made small talk with him on the drive to the preschool, but the other half of my mind was preoccupied running through the dozens of tasks I would have to do before bedtime. Calculating. Pondering. Worrying. Sometimes dreading. Sometimes anticipating.
Second stop: round-up two youngest children. Ellie wanted to go back to her class to find an obscure toy that she was certain she brought to school that morning. Petey strayed into the other direction, wandering into a forbidden classroom. I collected water bottles and bento boxes and breakfast containers and backpacks and graded assignments that the teacher handed over to me just in case I had time to pore over the details of the worksheets. Petey decided he was ready to go and began to exit the building, but Ellie still wasn’t ready and my urging to “hurry up” stressed her out. She frantically dug through her cubby in search of the toy in question, pulling out a hairbrush, a pink stuffed walrus-mermaid, coloring pencils, extra shirts, bracelets, lipstick, and an Easter hat. Still no toy. I questioned the collection of junk, reaching in to get a better look, but she swatted my hand away and shoved the box back into the cubby in a huff. Time to leave, she decided. No time for Mom to go through her things.
It is almost always like herding cats. Although seeing their faces when I picked them up was my favorite part of the day, getting them into the car and buckled up was my least favorite thing to do.
I opened the double-locked gate to the parking lot in what must have looked like a strange yoga move: one hand reaching over the top to unlatch the gate, and a knee pushing up the handle to swing it open while balancing the junk in my arms.
The kids noticed the pink geraniums that they liked to pick and made a move toward them and away from the gate. I managed to grab Petey by the collar and redirected everyone back toward our parked van in one swift move. After wrestling limbs into car seat straps, we were on our way home.
Home-sweet-home: a place where countless other tasks awaited my time and energy, or lack thereof. Unpacking the van and washing dishes and preparing dinner and then cleaning up and on and on and on.
The toiling. Oh, the toiling.
It never ends.
And yet I decided a long time ago that the greatest love we can experience is the kind made in the tedious day-to-day toiling.
It often seems like we define our lives and relationships by the big, happy moments. The wedding date. The birth. Special vacations. A new job. A new house. Birthdays.
But I believe that our lives are made in the small and mundane. This, I would argue, is the hidden and unappreciated beauty of being alive.
I don’t really think about the big moments when I remember my late husband. The majority of my memories are not about the day we got married, or the day we became parents, or the day we became homeowners. When I think about Kenneth I remember the toiling, only it doesn’t feel like toiling anymore. The commutes to work. Prepping lunch and breakfast next to each other in the crowded kitchen, every morning at the crack of dawn. Home Depot for house projects. Nagging him to use his Google calendar to keep appointments straight. Stressing out about leaving the house on time, dropping kids off, getting to work. The things I once complained about and disliked now feel as nostalgic and warm as the parts of our lives that were indisputably wonderful.
How can that be?
Once my husband asked his father to recall how hard it was to raise children. My husband, at the time deep in the trenches of a household with a baby and a young child, wanted to commiserate with his father. He was hoping to connect over mutual stories of fatherhood, but he didn’t get the response that he anticipated. His dad, a Japanese version of Mr. Spock, just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn’t remember. He told my husband you don’t remember the bad parts of life. You only remember the good.
We both wondered at the time: how could that be? Parenting is so hard. We would surely remember this.
I remember the ordinary Tuesday night when we sipped our drinks on the patio after the kids went to sleep. I can see the pile of dishes that he hadn’t done yet. I can imagine Kenneth watching a Netflix documentary while cutting up fruits and vegetables for his juices while I was asleep on the other side of the house. He’d tie up the trash bag and make sure it was thrown away outside before he himself went to bed, and then he would be up and moving around before I even opened my eyes in the morning.
I also remember the ordinary Wednesday morning when I woke up to him dying. But those are the details that I don’t like to linger on.
The details of how our story ended.
I learned a lot about endings. They aren’t as important as you think. As a writer, it is known that the ending should have an impact, but no good story has a saggy middle. The middle has to be solid. After all, the middle is the majority of our story.
It’s the toiling middle that our hearts will return to over and over again, not the dramatic endings. Not even the romantic beginnings. The middle is where we did most of our living. When I miss my late husband, it’s the middle that I miss being in with him. The toiling.
I miss Kenneth calling me from the grocery store for the 50th time to ask which spice to buy, even though I wrote it down for him and he bought it many times before. He would ask where to find it, what aisle specifically, and wanted to know what color it was again. I would be in the middle of child-wrangling and cooking and snap at him to go find a store worker and stop calling me because goddammit he should know what cumin is by now.
Today all of that seems cute. Just a sweet reminder of his absent-mindedness rather than an irritation about his lack of common sense.
I don’t linger on the ugly details of marriage. The arguments. The flaws. The regrets and resentment and frustration. None of it matters in death. It’s not like we get to re-do any of it.
I remember the selfie I took in front of our first Christmas tree back when we lived in the tiny studio apartment by the beach. I remember buying corn nuts at the gas station on the road trip we took before kids, and I remember which Subway was his favorite to stop at, and I point it out to the children when we pass through years later. I remember finding a parking spot at Legoland and pushing strollers and waiting in lines and stopping to help the toddler use the potty. I remember watching our children play in the dinosaur sandbox, and then making eye contact with my husband across the play area in that knowing way that signaled it was time to go. I remember packing the family back into the van and making the long drive home, talking as the kids slept, and then having to carry sleeping bodies to warm beds. I vaguely remember that I was exhausted and drained and maybe there was one too many tantrums at Legoland that day, but in my memories it is all sweetness.
My father-in-law was right. You only remember good things. The bad gets smoothed over with time. Or maybe time and mortality make us realize that the good always comes with the bad, and we would choose to do it all over and over again just to taste the sweetness of the fleeting joy we once had.
Funny how the tedious toiling was actually the glue that held together the experiences that we carry inside of us–the beautiful memories that keep us connected to even those who are no longer with us.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers that “love cannot exist without suffering. In fact, suffering is the ground on which love is born.” He argued that “love is a practice and unless you know what suffering is, you are not motivated to practice compassion, love, and understanding.”
The toiling. It is not for naught. It is the practice of love.
Our greatest love stories are stitched together with our toiling. Eating dinner together, wiping butts, reading one more bedtime story, listening to bad-day stories, commutes, brushing teeth next to each other, falling asleep in between sentences, grocery shopping, the kiss before bedtime. Toiling and joy. You can’t have one without the other. Love is both, not either/or.
For my kids: I hope they remember that I was there for them and showed up as much as I could. We ate dinner together and I was the one who mostly tucked them into bed at night and did their homework with them and created experiences for them and washed their clothes and listened to their stories. I hope my children know they were not just the product of a great love story, but that they were my greatest love story.