You think it will never happen to you. You write down in your diary, with its little gold-colored lock and key – the key you keep next to your skate key in the drawer of your shiny black Japanese music box, (when you open the drawer pulling on the red tassel, the woman in her flowery kimono turns in circles with her parasol as the music plays) – you write down that when you grow up you will not do all the mean things your mother does: you will not doubt your child when they tell you what really happened; you will not insist they scrub their sink and wipe down the baseboards and vacuum the living room before going out to play on Saturday; you will not shout at your children and count backwards from ten as if you are going to kill them if they are not quiet in their rooms with closed doors before you get to one.
You also write in your diary a poem, one of your first, and you almost hope she finds it:
My mom's a great gal
and I know she tries hard
but sometimes I think
she's a big tub of lard.
But there you are, shouting at your daughter because she was out until way past midnight and you didn't know where she was, and all of the monstrous visions of possible things that could have happened invaded your house, flying like beady-eyed dragons down the chimney, their horrible, sticky wings breaking the lamps and the glasses on the shelves, and their holographic double flapping through the four chambers of your heart, spewing the sulphuric evil smoke of knives and car-trunks, and muffled screams for help you have cranked up all your telepathic mother mics to register, car keys at the ready to break all speed limits as you swoop in to save the life that matters to you so many many many many many more times than your own.
You punish her by cutting off her internet. Cell phones do not yet have it. To her it is like cutting off her air supply. She rips the family photos from the wall, glass shattering like the protective bubble you've held her in that you thought was motherly love, turning to ice and hitting a rock, and maybe that's what it was all about: her having to break out of the sphere of your protection, like a butterfly getting free from its cocoon. Or Snow White stepping out of her glass coffin.
But there you are. On the wrong side of the story.
It happens for lots of different reasons, the shouting. It is really just the sound of hitting the brake: life suddenly an intersection where a gasoline truck is turning left, and you're in his blind spot; and there's a girl crossing the street, but the light's gone red, and the traffic started before she got to the other side, but they can't see her; and there's a van coming up behind you not slowing down, and you need to bring this movie to a screeching halt right this red-hot minute.
I always liked the honesty in Loudon Wainwright's songs. I listened to him a lot in college. He sang the way I usually felt, world-weary at the heavy age of 21. Many years later, I was surprised to see him on a talk show telling the story of driving down the highway, three of his kids fighting in the back seat. He kept telling them to knock it off, but they kept getting louder and punching harder, and he couldn't concentrate on the traffic, and he couldn't take it that they were ignoring him, and after one last ignored warning he reached back and landed a father-fury wallop on Rufus' thigh. And at that moment, he saw in his son's eyes that it had been too hard. He had broken something between them he would never be able to repair. And as Rufus grew up to become a great singer and songwriter like his dad, I have always heard in his voice the faint but discernible sound of that thing breaking. Like the caw of a raven at the far end of a dense forest.
The other day I listened to Rufus sing "Across the Universe" with John Lennon's son Sean, and it felt like he had discovered the size of the space he needed to feel liberated from that forest in. His voice moved steady as a rocket ship through glorious darkness streaked with unnamable stars, passing planet after planet, free at last. I saw the boy in the back seat betrayed by the father who in that moment actually wanted to hurt him. And I saw the man getting the bigger picture.
I pulled down from the shelf last week, during this strange time of isolation, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. The mother sends the boy to his room without supper, for something, we don't know what. Out of his anger and feeling betrayed he envisions an island where monsters live, who take him in and make him king, and shout and roar and dance around the fire with him until he feels like it's time to sail home. And when he gets back, he sees on his beside table his dinner waiting for him. And it is still warm.
That is how I always hope my story – our story – ends.