The oldest man in the world is doing laps in front of us. As the boys bicker over whether or not to play ping pong, I watch the man bob forward. I am both impressed and alarmed. I imagine he wouldn’t mind coming this way…but I’d rather not be here for it. His loose skin, having lost the elasticity of youth, is half a stroke behind him, dragging in the water like a peach parachute.
The boys have moved on to a tickle/taunt game. Right now, giggles. Coming soon, shrieks. The pool area is pretty empty, our fourth visit all summer and the first where friends haven’t swarmed. I’d call it relaxing except, of course, it isn’t.
The boys swam for 4 minutes and now drape their wet bodies over my chair. Asking “aren’t you bored just sitting here, Mama?” If only they were quieter or further away, I might be bored. Instead, I am waffling between overly sentimental and disproportionately annoyed.
I can feel myself emerging from my bad weeks. A few days ago, the sound of songbirds made me imagine a chick abandoned in its nest; today it signals the bright morning. Driving to the pool, a bullet from a nerf gun hits my neck. Last week this foam bullet would have felt as deadly as its metal counterpart but today it merely stings. I deliver a lecture about safety and the boys lose their guns, yet I don’t lose my temper.
The boys had a dental check up yesterday. Like the diagram of the eye lens where the image is first upside down then corrected, today, I see my boys from both the perspective of the appreciative dental staff and from the daily grind of motherhood. I know about their flossing (nonexistent), brushing (1x/day for a length measured in nanoseconds), and their eating habits (sugar = totally allowed). Instead of focusing on their failures, the office staff comments on their hair, manners (?!), honesty (genetic?), and collaboration (fostered by lack of choice). The cascade of compliments keeps coming. It’s not that I feel uplifted, just that I remember Both/And. He may have poor flossing, yet asks his hygienist how her day was. I recognize myself recognizing this duality and know that for now, the darkest days are behind me. When I am really down there is no Both/And. There is just Neither/Nor.
I still struggle with how to know when a bad mood is part of mental illness. After 20 years of therapy and thought, I am beginning to tease out the difference. Years ago, I sat across from my therapist telling him that I could manage, and I could. It wasn’t like I spent the day in bed with the shades closed. I just WANTED to. And that’s normal, right?
His raised brow told me I just needed to suck it up and stop sucking it up. “If you are at a six″ he says, his hand patting an imaginary horizon above his waist, “and you could be at an eight. Why wouldn’t you try?” Here his hand is shoulder height. I want to criticize his spatial parsing, but instead I focus on the numbers. He’s trying to improve a six; I dream of six. I’m at a three, faking a five. And my main complaint is the faking. I’d rather just claim the three. Shower weekly, honestly answer the question, “How are you doing?” See my kids 30 minutes a day, preferably while they are napping.
I mean, either I can roll with things or just decide I don’t care. Which is totally true. This is what I realize at the same time I am picking a cat hair off of my shirt, and thinking that the six needed to be higher if the eight is shoulder height on my therapist’s man-sized measuring stick.
I really don’t care. And I could just go. I could leave this couch and go to some other couch and sit there. Or not. I wouldn’t even really mind if I wasn’t able to sit. If I could just be gone. Some little piece of me said that that would be easier…no, the big piece said it would be easier. The little piece said, “Your kids can’t have this as part of their stories.”
So I took the prescription.
And, today, my bad weeks aren’t like that.
After a lap to the playground and another pair of capsized chairs, the boys check back in with me.
This time, when they ask if I am bored, I say, “Sort of.” And remember that boredom is a feeling of someone who cares, who wants to be in this life. Even if it is poolside, rather than swimming laps.
The old man is finished now.
The kids have come and gone, come and gone. And I might swim. It’s unlikely but possible. Either way, I am here.
Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble, Parent.co, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at annarosenblumpalmer.com.