Did you see me at the store today, grabbing my son by the arm, firmly squeezing his bicep to get him out the door? Did you see him kicking and spitting at me? Could you hear him screaming from the cereal aisle?
Who’s kid is this? I think to myself. But alas, he’s mine.
“This will be over soon,” a sympathetic older woman says to me with a smile.
“Thank you for saying that,” I say, rolling my eyes and shaking my head at the little boy who is charging at me like a rabid dog.The bagger packs my groceries as fast as she can while I haul my son out to the entryway to calm him down, throwing my credit card at the man behind the cash register on my way out the door.
“Just take whatever I owe please, I’ll be back for the bags.”
It’s not so much that I mind the scene. He’s four, it happens, I expect it. I can handle it (mostly), with deep breathes and a strangely serene tone not dissimilar, I imagine, from what my voice sounds like played back on a cassette tape, distant and hollow. I should know better than to take him to a store after school without a snack. His meltdown is very likely my fault.
And did I mention I would not buy the crocheted Ninja Turtle hat he threw at me in a fit of rage? OF COURSE it’s my fault. In the store I tell him calmly that he cannot have that hat because it’s almost Christmas, and he will be getting SO many new things very soon, and also, we have enough hats.
But here’s what I am really thinking:
NO, you little sh*t, you cannot have the f@*king ninja turtle hat because, don’t you know there are kids laying under rubble in Aleppo right this very minute. That there are kids who don’t have a bed to sleep on anymore, let alone a hat to warm their head. That there are kids in our own city who won’t get a hot meal tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day.
DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND HOW LUCKY YOU ARE?!
But of course I do not say any of this.
“I hate you. I wanted that hat so much,” he hisses at me as we walk to the car, my fingers firmly encircling his wrist, pulling him faster than his oversized boots can keep up.
Only when we’re buckled in do I launch into the tirade hidden so coolly beneath my grit-toothed smile in the store as I caught his hand each time he swung at me. I am careful not to shame him, so I talk about my disappointment in his behavior and not in his person (I know the difference between shame and guilt, thank you Brené). But boy howdy do I pile on the guilt.
Of course he does not understand.
“But I reeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaallllly wanted that hat,” he cry-sniffles at me in the rearview mirror.
I wonder if I should send him to bed hungry so he knows what an empty stomach feels like. I wonder if I should return the brown paper packages tied up with string (and blue Amazon Prime tape) piling high on my dining room table. Would an empty stocking on Christmas morning teach him the lesson I am so desperate for him to learn in this moment?
God help me if I’m raising a spoiled brat (or two).
But he is four. He wanted a hat. And as soon as we are home, he’s found something else to distract him, a cardboard box we’ve slowly been turning into a Batmobile. He’s no longer upset. “I’m sorry Mama,” he says, sheepishly inching toward me for a hug.
“That can’t happen again,” I say, “that kind of behavior is not okay.”
But of course it will happen again.
I know this.
He plays upstairs quietly while I sit writing, reflecting. From the comfort of my living room, in front of the fireplace and twinkling Christmas lights, I make a donation to an agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis. I don’t know if it will help. Perhaps I am trying to assuage the guilt I’m feeling for raising a child who will never know such horror.
We’ll start over when he comes down from his quiet time. I’ll close my computer (like I promised myself I would), and we’ll head to the kitchen to mix flour and salt to make dough ornaments. He’ll tire of that after five minutes and I’ll finish the ornaments myself while he colors popsicle sticks red to make flames that - with enough scotch tape - will shoot off the back of his cardboard Batmobile. I’ll look at him, with the tip of his tongue sticking out of his mouth as it does when he’s concentrating, and send a prayer up for the mothers in Syria, even though I hardly ever pray anymore. It will be a rusty prayer, full of apologies and excuses and impossible hopes, and I’ll have no idea whether it will reach anyone or do any good, but I’ll say it anyway. Because it’s all I can do from my kitchen.
“NO NO NO. You’re not DOING it right,” my son will yell, jolting me from my prayer with his eyes wide and nostrils flaring once again, because I’ve taped the popsicle stick to the wrong spot on the box. But this time, instead of grabbing his arm or shouting at him through gritted teeth, I’ll simply pull him close. “It’s okay,” I’ll say hugging him to my chest to calm him down, “we can still fix this.” Because we can. Of all the luxuries we have, this is perhaps our greatest, though he won’t understand this either.
Six inches of snow will fall overnight and blanket our city in the white calm of winter. The street sweeper’s tracks and the footsteps of the newspaper delivery man the only mark of wakefulness outside our window. Soon snow angels will grace front lawns and snow men will dot the yards, our new carrot-nosed friends beckoning us to play. My son will put on one of the many hats we pull from the winter box in the basement and will have forgotten the coveted Ninja Turtle hat and yesterday’s meltdown. Six more inches are expected to fall before the sky fades to dark and my husband and I will curl up on our respective chairs while our boys nap upstairs, exhausted from a Sisyphean morning of sledding. It is here, staring once again at the crackling fire and the lights on the tree, that I’ll wonder what more I can do for the mothers in Syria, whose crackling fires are so much different than my own. Only my eyelids are heavier than my heart in this moment. And so I close them, wishing for my mother-sisters across the world a moment of stillness, peace.