In Sickness and Solidarity
My aching spine tenses for a moment at the angry car horn. I’ve dragged my painful, sloppy jumble of bones, tendons and skin to the car and down the hill to pick my 9-year old son Emmet up from his elementary school. The neighborhood just outside my house is teeming, cacophonous. As I spot a rare open space amid the congestion and try to delicately jam my car into it, I’ve apparently driven someone behind me to frustration. Right there with you, jerk.
Inside a body where everything’s too loud, too harsh, too jarring, I quickly lock the car and scamper across the street, into the school-adjacent building where aftercare is housed. Amid the mundane motions of signing my son out, I’m trying not to. Trying not to wish I were still lying at home resting. Trying not to wish there were somebody, anybody else to help. Trying not to resent my husband, half a world away on a work trip to China. Trying not to feel sorry for myself. Self pity is an ugly accessory, especially on someone with a chronic illness.
I ask the supervisor to call Emmet down from the far play yard after I sign him out from the binder. I stand as motionless as possible amid the screeching kids and stuffed backpacks. Preservation of energy. I feel wholly swallowed and excreted by the surroundings by the time I catch a glimpse of his red t-shirt as he’s coming down the walk. I see he has chosen snail space for this afternoon’s speed and my irritation ratchets up a notch.
He approaches and I tamp it down. “Hey kiddo,” I offer with a smile. “How ya doin’?”
He passes me without comment. As he swings his backpack onto his shoulder, ducking his head, I notice that his cheeks are bright pink, dark eyebrows pulled low.
Anger bubbles up. “Hello? Can you not say hello?” My fists clamp shut.
Silence. Then a mumble. “I was just bullied.” His eyes shine.
Denial and protectiveness tangle my tongue. Really? I can’t do this today. Someone bullied my kid? I’m going to make them pay. All of that, all at once. I wait for the adrenaline to hit, to help me select and fuel the next move, but there isn’t any. My energy’s been tapped out for days. There’s a right way through this, right? I mentally stretch for that master parenting book. The one that doesn’t exist, the one with tombs of blank pages. Where’s the next? It’s not in my slowly unclenching fingers, in my sluggish prefrontal cortex, even in my compulsively checked phone.
One step in front of the other. We must move. I wrap my arm around Emmet’s shoulder, guiding him to the exit.
“Just now?” I ask.
I bend my head so we’re face to face. “What did they do? Please answer me.”
A pause, then, “He slapped my face. And kicked me in the nuts. And shoved me against the fence. Here,” he hops to lift his leg and shows me a pale, soft, mildly scratched knee.
What were you? How were you? When did they? Was there any? Why didn’t you? I hunch my shoulders and round my back, drawing a cocoon around his body.
“I’m so sorry, Emmet. That sounds awful.” We link and move together down the stone steps, out to the car. As I pull myself into the driver’s seat, he separates into the back one, a ball of misery, dark and hemorrhaging.
I carefully navigate the virulent traffic, asking simple, measured questions. Slowly, a narrative emerges. A game of soccer with Emmet and his friend. A previously unknown boy joins, sabotages and harasses them both. The two friends escape, but can’t locate a supervisor. I arrive and Emmet is called to the main building.
I glance behind me and watch Emmet grinding his teeth and twisting his fingers together, apart, together.
I’m seized with a demonic impulse to swing the car around, stomp back into the aftercare center and demand answers, retribution. The vision is layered with memory, of my mother’s jaw set and angry, pulling me behind her as she prepares to castigate my teachers to the point of tears or resignation, whichever comes first. No, that’s her, not me.
But am I also a bad parent not to intercede?
“Emmet, would you like me to stop and I can go in and talk to the aftercare supervisors about this?”
“No! Mom!” comes his immediate response. “I can handle this myself!” He straightens and hooks my gaze in the rearview mirror.
“Okay, okay,” I concede and continue on the twisting road home. Maybe I’m a bad parent either way.
The dendrites in my brain slowly untangle and details of parenting books I have actually read finally filter through. Bullying is a pattern of behavior. I confirm with Emmet — this hasn’t happened before.
“You must be angry, huh?” Emmet nods furiously.
“Yeah, it sounds like that kid was really mean.”
“But Mom, I’m going to handle this myself! Don’t go in!”
“No, I know. I get it. I’m just trying to appreciate how you’re feeling.”
A beat, and then one sob. Two. He’s howling in the backseat and I’m miles away, hands set on the wheel at ten and two, navigating our way home.
We arrive and enter the house together, where we’re bombarded by our older dog and bouncing puppy. Emmet, still sobbing, slides to the floor against the side of the sofa and I slide down with him, grateful not to have to fight gravity. We lean shoulder to shoulder, as I breathe deliberately through the pain in my head, my joints, my heart.
“I love you, kiddo.”
The puppy popcorns from one of us to the other, landing on our knees, our heads, our stomachs. She laps the tears from Emmet’s face, her breath coming in little puppy puffs. My chest opens as I watch her drown his misery in her relentless enthusiasm. Licking him, cleansing him. His breathing has slowed, as have his tears.
“Hey, so,” I tell him. “If this happens again, it’s best to get parents involved, okay? But for now, you handle it and we’ll see how it goes. Okay?” Emmet consents.
I offer to work on the New York Times puzzle with him, the kind of nerdy togetherness we both relish, and he agrees readily. He settles into my lap at the computer and it’s time to pretend. Pretend that I still have any energy. Pretend that my body doesn’t still hurt. Pretend that I know I handled this right. The love is not pretend, though. The love is easy.
Shannon Cassidy lives with chronic illness, writes and photographs in Oakland, California. She resides with her husband, young son, senior dog and gremlin of a puppy.