“Wagon Wheel” pounds from the radio, and we are headed south. “Louder,” shouts a kid from the back. I should insist on manners but don’t. I’m so tired of talking.
“Where we going?” says the baby.
“Mama! Where we going?” he repeats.
“To the mountains,” I say.
“To the mountains.”
Forget it. It’s impossible to hear in this car, but the song and the sun beat against my chest, begging me to turn it up, so I do. We are calling in the good spirits to bring back that joy we lost all those months ago. Joy was a fickle friend last year, and the warmth soaking through the windshield says she promises to change. She means it this time; I want to believe it.
As the chorus hits, my husband points out a waterfall charging down the rocky roadside, a scene created by heavy morning rain. The kids keep count of each stream leaping off the edge. Eventually, an argument erupts. There is a cheater in our midst, someone fudging numbers to claim all the glory for himself.
“Mom, he’s a jerk! Can we just drop him off?” asks my son, pointing at one of our bonus kids. There it is – the sucking of the joy, the reminder that though we are currently mobile, we have packed our problems alongside the toothbrushes and muddy rainboots. Beneath the pile of coloring books, in between handfuls of Mike and Ike’s, lies the awkward throwing together of a family, little boys and a girl who have no business trying to coexist. We’ve all stretched as far as we can this year. With the stress of an expanded family and the uncertainty of a continued pandemic (one that finally struck our house just weeks ago), we cannot take another hit. An unannounced sneeze would be enough to blow the whole thing to pieces.
I take another slug of coffee, a comfort that feels more and more like an ulcer as so many comforts do these days. The bickering from the backseat continues, eventually morphing into a lullaby. Before I know it, I’m dozing off. 2021 has been exhausting.
My eyes pop open. “What?”
“Do dogs have teeth?” Ugh.
“Take a second and think about it. You know the answer.”
“Oh, yea,” he smiles.
I have grown to hate the unyielding curiosity that I used to adore. I listen less and less. My oldest recounts the plot of a movie he’s watching, but all I gather is that a lot of dogs have died, or maybe it’s the same one. He’s not sure, and I don’t care.
I want to delight in my children again. I want to find my way back to them through the fog that descended upon our home when more children arrived, through the pain that followed those children and the stagnation that holds us in its grip.
As I sit on this last thought, my laptop switches off, and the black screen reflects my face. Deep lines have settled across my forehead and stretch across my neck, jowls have begun to form. My arms have thickened and pull against the fabric of an ill-fitting shirt. This year has been hard on my heart and my body, the internal wounds finally penetrating through to the outer layer, cracking the façade.
But more troubling than the added wrinkles and pounds from this past year is the unfamiliar soundtrack that plays most days. “I am screwing this up.” “I am screwing them up.” “I am not the person I thought I could be.”
When we walked headfirst into this newest challenge – adding two siblings to our brood of four – I assumed I would rise to the occasion. Instead, I’ve buried myself beneath the burden of caring for someone else’s children while watching my own flail. Frozen in this place, I wait for something to happen, for someone to un-pause our life. I need to come alive again. I need a resolution in this new year.
So, I return to what I know. I run. Kids in tow, I run far away to see if I can be more than an empty gaze. We pack it all in on this last-ditch road trip, splashing in hot tubs, riding roller coasters, roaming the byways of a National Park. On our final day, a storm hits, covering the city in snow and power outages. We sleep in. We heat breakfast over a fire and stare out the window in intermittent spurts of silence. We welcome the new year quietly, and I am grateful for a slow morning.
That night, lights back on, I empty popcorn into shared bowls and we gather around a movie. It’s about a dog who returns life after life as a new puppy with the same soul. With each awakening, each change of family, he evolves to understand a bit more. He loves and loses and learns.
I watch this movie that my son had tried so patiently to tell me about just days before. His growing 9-year-old body drapes across my lap as the narrator delivers the final line, “Just be here now.” My son searches my face for tears, knowing he will find them.
“See, Mom? I told you it was good!”
He had, but I was only half-awake like I’ve been the majority of these past twelve months, loafing about in a kind of sleeping survival state. It’s time to wake up and just be here now. Be here now with the salty popcorn and my sweet sons and those I’ve been given for this awakening, this change of family. Be here now as this family walks hand-in-hand toward whatever lies ahead. It is my only resolution this year.