i'm trying

"I'm Trying"
The Story of The Second* Time I Cried This Year

(*I'm Not Counting the Time I Listened to an Irish Folk Singer Perform A Cappella 
The Celtic Lamentation of the Mother Who Has Lost Her Child 
Because That Was Some Low Blow Bullshit. 
But If You Count That Time, Then This is the Third Time I Cried This Year. 
Full Disclosure.)

Starring:
Me
Chicken
Buster
Access-A-Ride Driver
(Not Pictured: Lady in a Wheelchair)

I pick Chicken up from school.

I park in the fire lane because the parking lot is full (I'm not writing badly; this will be important later). I go inside, pick up Chicken from his classroom, and walk back out to the car. The sun shines. A crisp breeze sends golden leaves skipping across the parking lot. Buster, strapped to my chest, swings his legs and coos. Chicken's hand curls around mine as he asks, "so what did you do while I was at school?"

I open Chicken's car door. He climbs in. He actually sits in his seat. Wow, this is going pretty well! I think, like so many pretty girls in slasher movies. But then he slouches. Just enough that I can't dig the crotch buckle out from under his body.

Me: Sit up, please.

Him: (slouches down more)

Me: Chicken? I can't clip you in unless you sit up.

Him: (smiles at me. Slouches down more.)

Me: Okay, I'm going to help your body sit up.

I lean into the car and assume the standard underarm grip so I can pull him back up. I'm so bent over that Buster, in the Ergo, is lying in Chicken's lap. Buster looks up at me, smiles, and I have just enough time to smile back...

like this

... BEFORE HE ATTACKS.

evidently he saw this

Buster has apparently been fine-tuning his Eagle Claw Kung Fu technique. He sinks his fingers into the soft skin of my neck, just under my jaw on either side of my face. Then he twists.


dramatic reenactment

Me: OW! OW! OW! OW!

Buster: Ow! HAHA!

Chicken: What's wrong, Mommy? (slides further down in his seat.)

Me: SIT UP PLEASE.

Chicken: What's Buster doin?

Me: He's hurting Mommy. 

Buster: Hahahaha!

Chicken: Why? 

I finally pry Buster's fingers away from my skin. I can feel the cold breeze on the newly-exposed pink skin where he's scratched me.

Chicken: Why? 

I lean over again to clip Chicken in. He wiggles in the seat so he's slouched even lower, and swats at my hands.

Chicken: Why? 

Buster pounces again; this time his wiry fingers get two tiny screaming fistfuls of my cheeks.

Chicken: Why? Why, Mommy? Why?

Me: I DON'T KNOW WHY PLEASE SIT UP PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.

Chicken: (pokes Buster in the eye) Hahahahahaha!

Buster: Hahahahahaha! 

Buster clenches his fists and shakes his hands in delight. It would be super cute if he didn't still have my face in them. He giggles madly as the fine hairs on my neck wind through his fingers and pull taut.

So, quick recap, here's what's happening:
- Buster clawing my face
- Chicken poking him in the eye
- both of them laughing
- me bent over Chicken's seat, gritting my teeth as I try to loosen Chicken's seat straps so I can get the seat clipped.

That's what the Access-A-Ride driver sees when he walks up and says...

Him: Um, excuse me?

Me: Yes?

Him: I've been waiting for you... (he gestures to the community center that Chicken's school shares.) I'm supposed to pick someone up, but... (he gestures to my car, parked in the fire lane.)

Me: OK. OK. I understand. I'm trying.

Him: Yeah, but... I've been waiting for awhile now, and--

Me: I understand. Believe me. I understand. I am trying.

Him: Okay, but she's waiting inside, and she's in a wheelchair so I have to get over to the ramp side, and--

Me: I'm trying! I'm trying! I'm trying! 

My hands start to shake. The straps won't loosen. I realize I've been pushing the wrong button and tugging, pointlessly, on the locked straps. I can hear my own voice. I'm trying. I'm trying.

Chicken slaps Buster's throat. Buster screams and arches his back. He pulls his hand away from my ears and there's a small but audible meaty ripping sound when a dozen or so of my hairs come away with it.

I gasp, stand up, cover his hand with my hand, and close my eyes, tight, like I'm trying to remember something that's just out of reach.

The first tear drops onto my cheek.
___


There's a place where you can decide, "I could cry right now... but I'm not going to. I'll just take a deep breath and be fine." That place was about ten minutes behind me.

Looking back, the turning point was The Driver.

Buster always hurts me - I've been trying to write a post about how we're in an abusive relationship for a long time now (no luck yet - all my attempts are in hideously bad taste.) It's never not humiliating. It never doesn't hurt. But I know how to take a deep breath and calmly stroke his pinching fingers from my skin, or how to slip my flat palm between Buster's open jaws and my shoulder, and quietly say, "in this family, we don't hurt each other."

Chicken always fights the car seat  - perhaps he's seen The Man in the Iron Mask one too many times. (I'm joking, of course... he's seen it the EXACT RIGHT NUMBER OF TIMES. He knows what happens when he gets mouthy.) It's never not annoying. It never doesn't elevate my heart rate. But I know how to take a deep breath and wait for him to finish thrashing, and then calmly say, "it's time to get you clipped in so you can stay safe."

These are standard daily procedures, appointments that we always keep.  I could write down, "wrestle Chicken into car seat," and "teach Buster how to touch gently," on my to-do list every day, and I would check those things off. Every single day.

But I don't always have a witness to the struggle. Or if I do, that witness is silent and invisible, behind a window, sitting on a bench, not moving, just watching. A polite spectator.

The Driver had been watching our shit show of three. He'd been watching, and then he entered the scene.

I'm trying. I'm trying. I'm trying. 

He was a living reminder that some people can get into a car without employing deep breathing exercises, or reasserting firm reminders that their bodies are not there to be wounded for fun.

He reminded me that people can see my son's fingers rake my skin. People can see me ask Chicken to sit up. They can see his sly smile as he scoots lower instead.

It isn't that I'm ashamed of my kids, or how I parent. I'm not embarrassed of their natural impulses to push buttons. It's just... I read Mommy blog posts about how hard it is to parent. I write them, too. That conversation is on repeat in my head all day long.

But I so rarely hear myself say, out loud, how hard it is to do necessary things that should be simple. How an exchange that occupies 1% of my time can devour 60% of my patience, and obliterate 100% of my confidence. How the difficulty of those tasks feels like a fair punishment for not being a good enough mom. How, tonight when I tell Ryan about my day, I'll just shake my head and say, "pickup was really hard today." I won't say, "but it was so much harder than hard. I had to try, to work, for every single inch of ground. Nothing was easy."

I don't say out loud very often that I am trying.

All day long, I am trying. When I burn the toast, it's because I'm trying to make breakfast. When I stub my toe, it's because I'm trying to play tag. I'm trying to be a person. I'm trying to feed my family. I'm trying to play. And when I have to say I'm trying, you know that all I've gotten is black toast and hurt.

Standing on that curb, I realized how foreign it was to hear my voice pronounce it, even as the thought was so familiar I hadn't even been aware of its presence. I'm trying. How many times a day is that two-word mantra my consolation prize, the one I get for failing.

I'm trying. 

And now I'm crying in front of the Access-A-Ride guy. He's wearing one of those puffy, papery starter jackets and puffy, dirty white sneakers, and I'm going to cry in front of him because I'm trying. I don't know why that makes me so sad.

___

The first tear drops onto my cheek.

The driver backs away. He's got priors and doesn't want this kind of trouble.

Him: I'm sorry, I just... she's in a wheelchair and...

Me: (eyes closed, whispering) I know. I'm sorry. I'm... trying.

Every time I have to say it again, I feel like another floorboard is getting pulled up to expose the churning water that nobody knew was the reason the house shook.

But I'm trying because this matters, that my children be safely buckled in. It matters that I stay gentle, no matter how roughly they handle me.

I am trying, so hard, because every day THIS lies between me and my short afternoon break, THIS physical assault, THIS battle of wits, every day. And today someone is watching me, and the clock, and I have to say, out loud, pathetically, that THIS is who I am.

I'm just this person, trying, crying on the sidewalk with claw marks on her face, a car full of mistmatched socks and Starbucks cups, and two children who will not be restrained.

This is what trying looks like.

___


I finally get the kids clipped in. The Driver stands in the open door of his shuttle bus, his elbow on the window. He chews a toothpick and shrugs at the community center volunteer who's come out to see what's going on.

At a red light, I flip down my visor to look in the mirror. Red rake marks spread across my neck and cheeks. My hair flies wildly in all directions, as if someone has just rubbed my head with a balloon. My lips tremble. My sunglasses don't hide the tears dripping from my chin.

Chicken and Buster sit in the backseat. They giggle and babble and point out the window when we pass a garbage truck.

mommy?
mommy?
mommy can we get a donut?
mommy
buster says
he thinks we should get a donut


They aren't aware of what surrounds them - not the highway offramp where exiting cars shoot by with such cavalier speed that it makes our Outback quiver. Not their mom in the front seat, crying though she can't quite explain why.

Not the prayer for safe passage that she sends up, unconsciously, a reflex, every time she gets behind the wheel with her most precious cargo. They have no idea why Mommy keeps volunteering for this beating, every day.

They're not even really aware of the webbed straps of their car seat harnesses, snug and smooth against their chests, the clips fastened, the buckles clicked. They're accustomed to safety. To the tight grip of ribs around their beating hearts,  gentle hands on their shoulders, and a calm voice that says, "in this family, we don't hurt each other." Someday that will not be a lie.


In the meantime, I have to keep trying.

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