The Remains of the Day

December 19, 2012

I wrote this two years ago. It seems right to post it again while I recover from neck surgery. I’ve changed the title and I even tried to tweak the content but the literary gods would not allow it. Hope you like it:

The Remains of the Day

I took eight kids ice skating. It was so much better when I imagined it in my head. The day started off great. As I drove around town collecting children, I was singing along with the radio, showing off my Justin Bieber trivia and cracking grade-school jokes.

“Hey, why are teddy bears never hungry?” I asked.

“Um…….beeeecause…….?” wondered my eight year old out loud.

“Because they are always stuffed!” I said.

Laughs.

Encouraged, I continued, “Hey, what do you call a dinosaur that sleeps all the time?”

“Boring. Like these jokes,” heckled my teenage daughter.

“Noooo,” I said while making eye contact with her in the rear view mirror, “a dino-snore!”

More laughs. Squeals from the toddlers and rolled eyes from the teenagers.

“Tell another one, Mom, tell us the one about the cow!”

Blushing with false humility, I conceded, “What do you call a cow in the Hundred Acre     Wood?” I watched my thirteen year-old put on headphones while the rest of us chimed in perfect unison, “Winnie the Moo!” I did, however, catch her crack a smile.

I was feeling unusually optimistic and invincible on this particular day. Maybe it was the Christmas holiday infusing my heart with hope. Maybe it was the grace to rise above personal pain for a few hours. Maybe it wasn’t that complicated at all. Maybe I just felt happy because I was doing something other than laundry. I am not like Ann Voskamp. I find it impossible to discover transfigurational glory in the matching of socks. For whatever reason on that morning, my enthusiasm was genuine.

By the time I was driving home, however, I realized I’d been overzealous in my optimism.  Also, I had grossly underestimated the affects of sugar and caffeine on small children. I was exhausted. At five o’clock as the winter sun began to set, fatigue cast a shadow on my mood. Rather than telling knock-knock jokes, I enforced a strict “no talking” policy while children were returned to their homes. I had thrown my hoodie over my head like some perimenopausal, middle-aged thug. I looked as if I’d narrowly escaped Dante’s Ninth Circle. My eyelid was twitching. I sat staring off into the afternoon traffic like I was looking for my lost soul.

It had, after all, been a rough day. Granted it was not “rough” in a Third World sense but in a First World, single-mommy kind of way. After having laced eighteen skates, bought nine cups of hot chocolate, tied ten scarves, recovered one lost glove and made twenty-six trips to the bathroom….all on skates, my maternal ambition had melted. Somewhere between this Groupon “Deal of the Day” back in November and driving home that afternoon, I wished I had been run over by the Zamboni.

One of the reasons why my Nancy Kerrigan fantasy turned into more of a Tonya Harding reality was the four buses that showed up from the YMCA. Children poured out of those buses like ice cubes from an automatic ice maker. Besides contending with the 60 latch-key kids from the Y, there was also the “professional” skating crowd. They ranged from four-year-old ice princesses whose mothers watched from the bleachers with gluten-free snacks, home schooling manuals and binoculars to a forty-year-old man in a lime green, full-body leotard.

He required an explanation on the drive home.

Then, there was the small minority of the rest of us who simply had the good intentions of making a memory for our children without checking the event calendar on the Ice Center’s website. Clearly, it must have been “Paroled Kids Skate Free” Day because for the next two hours, my kids were bumped, shoved, trampled, run over and used as human catapults. I didn’t even see the eight year old and older crowd that I’d brought with me. At one point, an ambulance showed up and carted some kid away on a stretcher. My four-year-old asked, “Is that Laura?” I gave an ambivalent shrug and sipped my coffee never taking my eyes off of the guy in the leotard. I figured if it was a child with me one of the other kids would show up complaining, “Why does she get to ride in an ambulance?” or “I want a neck brace! Don’t you know the homework I could get out of with a neck brace?” I just hoped for the best while I wondering if that guy bought his man-size leotard online or in person.

Somehow in the middle of all this insanity and just as I was wishing that a disgruntled Olympic hopeful would crush my skull with a crowbar, I ran into a friend from college. We spent the next 90 minutes talking about the ironic and unwanted twists and turns in our lives that were (very much against our wills) making us better women. Between nursing bruises, handing out cash like congressional lobbyists and directing children like traffic cops, we unpacked our lives. My friend asked me what it was like to be a single mother of five, a new job description for me. I said, “It’s like drinking water from a fire hydrant.” I asked her about the difficulty of having a chronically unemployed husband. She confessed, “I blame him for everything that’s wrong in our lives.”  Having found a kindred soul in one another, we shared all we could until each of our tired children made their way back to us. Realizing our time was over, we unlaced skates, bandaged blisters and agreed that grace isn’t overrated and Jesus really is everything He’s cracked up to be, despite our hardships. Finally, with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” blaring over the sound system and exhausted from the energy required to do what was the emotional equivalent of a triple-toe-loop while managing toddlers to teenagers, we said our goodbyes. I had skated a nearly perfect routine as a mom in that everyone had fun and no one was going home in a neck collar (not every kid that was there can say that) and aside from losing my three-year-old at the very end of the day, I felt accomplished.

Gold-medal mommy material.

Four stops and one hour later, I was finally approaching the last exit off the interstate. My hands had thawed from the frigid air inside of the skating rink and I could almost feel my feet again. I was thinking about steeping myself in a hot bath to wash away the stress of the day. I imagined how good it would feel to slip between the cool sheets of my soft bed and fall asleep. Then, I saw her. This waif of a girl, a teenager,  sitting cross-legged on the frozen ground at the bottom of my exit ramp. She, too, had a hoodie over her head. I wore mine to put a barrier between myself and the juvenile annoyance in the back seat but she wore hers to put a barrier between herself and the whole world. Even though her body was buried in oversized clothes and addiction, this girl’s frail frame was no match for winter’s cold.

She held a sign that read, “Please help. God bless.”

I felt around in my purse, pockets and cup holders for money. I drove slowly trying to buy myself more time to gather loose dollars and spare change. As I finally came to the stop, I was frustrated because all I could find wasn’t nearly enough. Most of my cash had been spent bribing my children with food and drinks in exchange for my grown-up conversation at the skating rink. I even asked my eight-year-old to give me back the dollar I’d given her thirty minutes earlier to stop talking. I’m not sure why but I felt desperate to help this young wisp of a girl. I wanted to give her my keys and my hot bath and my cozy bed but all I had left were the remains of our day. Embarrassed, I rolled down my window and handed her the cash. I said, “I’m sorry there’s so little.” As we exchanged the money her fingers skated across my hand like one of those tiny ice ballerinas I had seen earlier. Her fingers were thin and fragile as if they were made out of paper mache. I was surprised by her delicate touch and without thinking I held onto her hand. It was only for a second. I wanted to replace some of the dignity that had been stolen from her with the willingness of my own touch. I hoped my gesture was worth more than my spare change because I wanted her to feel me noticing her behind her hood and her shame. I waited for a chilly response but with her hand in mine, she lifted her head and looked at me with hollow blue eyes. Her face was beautiful and her skin looked translucent like bone china.

Then she smiled.

I smiled back and drove away.

It’s possible that she had a bigger wad of cash in her pocket than I did. I can hear some cynic say, “Well, you know, she probably bought liquor or drugs with that money.” I hope she didn’t. I had no guarantee that she wouldn’t but what I did know was that something is badly broken in that young girl and that badly broken thing forces her to sit in the freezing cold, stripped of all her dignity and ask strangers for money. She didn’t have to prove to me why she needed my kindness or that she wouldn’t abuse it. What she did with my offering didn’t determine if I should give it.

So, there I was driving home with my hoodie over my head, staring into traffic like I was looking for my lost soul when I saw one. Perspective is a gift. I don’t always get it. I don’t think the guy in the lime-green leotard gets it either but, today, I was touched quite literally by a lost soul. In those empty eyes and in her brief touch, I could see and feel the winter kill of her spirit. That young girl could have easily been any one of us and, in a sense, she is and we are. She felt as kindred to me as my friend from college.

As I was driving away, I looked back in the rear view mirror and saw that vapor of a girl sit down again on the cold ground, continuing to hold her sign. Also in my mirror, I could see the happy and laughing faces of my kids safely where they belonged. I pulled the hoodie off my head and made myself vulnerable again to the needs and noises coming from my back seat. When I got home, I took a hot bath. I fell asleep in my king-sized bed under layers and layers of velvety blankets. I did so, however, with less of a feeling of accomplishment and entitlement simply because I’d taken my kids skating but more so with a sense of humility and gratitude.

The next day, Christmas Eve, I returned to the stop sign where she had been sitting to give her one of my favorite blankets but she was gone.

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2 Responses to “The Remains of the Day”

  1. Beth said

    What a beautiful post — funny and honest and a little heart-wrenching. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  2. Dave Eyrich said

    Michelle,

    Thanks, great post. Hope you all have a great Christmas.

    From the dude in green. (kidding)

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