Your four-year-old holds your cheeks tightly in his tiny hands and whispers, “Kill me, mommy.” You shake your head, no, never. You pull away and he screams, “I WANT TO DIE.”
Later, a diagnosis appears and you hate yourself, your parenting, everything you ever did and said that fragmented your child. You go back in time and place your hands over his. I will love you forever, you whisper. I’m your safe harbor, you say.
It takes years. It takes setting yourself on fire. It takes being almost positive you won’t live through this. It takes living through this. It takes emptying your charred body of all it knew and fire-proofing the remaining shell. Now you are ready to learn, to forget what you were taught before. Now you remember how to breathe, to walk, to smile cracked lips.
Your daughters wait at a distance, watch you burn and reemerge, your face the same but different. They mirror how you stand. How you hold out your arms. How you bury your dread and stay intact.
Were you ever a good parent? Was there one day you did this right? Where you held them close and whispered and it was enough, it was good, they felt loved?
You wake up in a panic, your youngest asleep curled into you, your dream about her older sister clogging your throat. The four of you stood in the backyard of a house you never owned. Your middle child screamed and tore out her hair. She slapped you across the face. She pulled a gun from her pocket and shot her big brother while he begged her to love him. She ran into the woods and you knew you would never see her again.
You pour water into the bowl of cereal. You burn the toast. The last thin thread connecting you to this kitchen, this house, pulls tight and then tighter. It will break any second.
You take your children to school, stopping for doughnuts on the way. The powdered sugar on your son’s upper lip is so perfect that you reach for it with the tip of your pointer finger. He ducks at the last minute and blows you a kiss. Offers you a bite, even though it’s his favorite, even though he’s starving.
For every down there is an up. For every dark hole, a ladder reaching toward a distant ball of something shimmering. You know this has to be true or else you’ll dissolve, too.
You listen as your children eat dinner and talk about their day. They laugh, tell stories about friends, complain about school. You hold your breath and incise this moment into something fleshy that now grows inside you. You repeat their words out loud to yourself so they don’t fade, but they are gone the next day. You poke the swollen scab to remind yourself that good things happen.
You kiss your husband for the first time in months.
You and your son in his big kid bed at 3AM, your phone and his iPad blending blue light, two islands, his hand on your arm. A bridge. He is hallucinating again. The meds aren’t working again. You kiss his forehead until he collapses, boneless, his mouth open, into an infant’s sleep. You close your eyes, at last, and lean back against the wall.
This morning you wake up to a love poem typed by young fingers into your phone. Your son gets dressed for school, recites the poem as you read it. He smiles like any other kid. Your daughters run in and hug-attack him, three human pups rolling around the floor, squeals rising until you back out of the room and go downstairs. You turn on the coffee machine. You pack their lunches. You are not empty, you whisper as you pour coffee. People don’t dissolve, you say as you stir in sugar.
Hannah Grieco is a writer, advocate, and teacher in Arlington, VA. She can be found online at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter at @writesloud.