It is a sunny Sunday morning. I sit in my living room, drinking steamy coffee from a black mug and looking at the view of snow-capped mountains from my window.
There are no screams of “Get out. Get out. I’m in the bathroom,” followed by shrieks of “Brat. You’re a brat,” then a slamming door, then a “Mom, Jenny won’t let me use the brush and I neeeeeed it.”
There are no cries of “There’s nothing to eat” or “I’m bored.” There are no blaring radios, no blaring television, no requests to go to the mall, to a friend’s house, or down to Safeway to buy candy. Both children are at sleepovers.
I open a window to hear the song of birds in search of their morning breakfast. I welcome the bark of neighborhood dogs. It is barely 8 o’clock, much too early for the morning to come alive with cars and kids. It is the perfect time to be sitting on my couch, watching white fluffs of clouds float by in the dusky sunlight.
It feels good and I wish I could stay on the couch, in this calm, forever. But I know I must rise and start my day. I am a semiemployed, single mom with a mortgage and other bills that need paying. I can’t justify wasting a day to sit on my couch to watch the morning. I have resumes to write and freelance articles due at several newspapers. I have papers to finish grading for a freshman English class I teach at the University of Alaska Anchorage as part of my graduate program. I have to get groceries, go to softball practice, do the laundry.
I don’t mind. It’s much better than when I was married. It’s much better than constant threats of “I ought to kill you,” of bruises across my arm where I was grabbed too tight while attempting to be forced to listen to screams of what’s wrong with Debbie. It’s better than being pushed down the stairs and having doors and cabinets slammed around me. It’s better than threats of “If you leave me, I will burn down the house, I will toss your computer out of the window, I will break your camera, kill your plants, commit you to a nuthouse.”
People who don’t know where I came from try to give me moral lessons, telling me horror stories of friends they have known who have gone through divorces. The stories always end with delinquent kids, mothers in poverty, sinful relationships.
“Divorce hurts the family,” they tell me. “Divorce hurts the children. Parents should always try to stay together.”
I want to scream: “My family isn’t broken. My family is fixed!” But I nod and agree, that yes, divorce is a shame, and yes, divorce isn’t easy. I don’t have the energy to enlighten them, to let them know that all marriages aren’t birthday cards and kisses. I don’t have the energy to tell them that I stayed 12 years, trying, trying, trying, trying. You can’t befriend what wants to kill you.
They comment on the hours I am at work or school, then stare, waiting for my “ah ha” moment of clarity that will make me rush back to my ex-husband. They don’t want to hear that both Sarah and Jennifer are “A” students, have never been in trouble, are liked by teachers and classmates. They don’t want to hear that we are happier this way. It goes against their preaching.
A bird sings a song while perched in a tall birch just outside my living room window. I wonder if birds always wake up so happy. I sip my morning coffee and make a move to get up, still not ready to trade in this writing for more pressing matters, such as the employment needs of the Aleutian Islands or the lack of housing in that area.
But if I waste the day, I will fall behind. If I sit too long, I will start dwelling on the unpaid bills, on the braces that both children need and the lack of insurance to cover them, on the letters coming back in droves saying, “thanks for applying, sorry … ” on my unsuccessful attempt to find a roommate. I will lose faith and start to believe I am broken. I will start to read more into the children’s fights than I should. They will become fights based on the struggle of our lives instead of what they really are: a growing-up process.
I rinse my cup and put it in the dishwasher, pausing to touch the stove that a few weeks ago my youngest caught on fire. I grab another cup of coffee and sit on the creamcolored carpet closer to the open window.
I am not done writing. I have not written about the fire.
Jenny and a friend came home from school early that day because of parent/teacher conferences. Jenny said they were hungry and didn’t want to wait an hour for me to get out of class to fix them lunch. They spilled a cupful of dry noodles under the burner while making homemade macaroni and cheese. When the noodles caught fire and flared around the pot in four-foot flames, the two of them ran from the house in a panic.
As I turned off the highway onto Birch Lake near my house, I was surprised to see a lime green water tank from the local fire department turn onto my street ahead of me.
I strained above the tree line to look for smoke, but I saw none. When I turned onto Third Street, I saw the tanker pull up beside my house. A big red fire truck sat in my driveway. Firemen were walking around. My front door was open.
“Jenny,” I screamed. “My god, Jenny. Where’s Jenny?”
She stumbled from behind the fire truck, her face looking to the ground, her right foot digging into the rocks on the driveway. I scooped her in my arms before she would look at me.
“I was afraid you’d be mad at me,” she said.
“No,” I said. “No. Of course not.”
My house could dissolve in flames. I didn’t care. We started over once. We could do it again if we had to. But we were lucky; there was no damage.
Jenny and I cleaned the kitchen, wiping down counters and relining the burners with foil. That done, I told the girls to make a “cold” snack, while I rushed downstairs for a telephone interview with Olympic gold medalist Diana Golden for an article due in a day. I would fix them something after I finished.
Golden lost a leg to bone cancer at 12 years of age. She lost both breasts to cancer at 30. She can mountain climb, she can hike, she can ski - she doesn’t let any of her troubles stop her from her dreams.
I told Diana about my earlier brush with fire. How what matters changes in an instant. The day before, I worried about losing my home. I was afraid if I didn’t find a full-time job soon, I wouldn’t be able to make the payments. Then, poof, just like that, my home didn’t matter. If it was gone, it was gone. We’d find a new one.
“I realized it’s not what you don’t have,” I said. “It’s what you have. What you do with what you have.”
Diana Golden was successful despite her problems. She knew: If you focus on what you don’t have, you stagnate in depression. If you focus on what you have, you can do anything. Anything.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s what you have.”
She had one leg, a voice, determination.
I have Sarah and Jennifer. I have my friends. I have my family. I have two legs, a voice, determination.
My family isn’t broken. My family is whole, complete and thriving. We will make it.
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