Life is very different in Portsmouth.
Though we are only a two-hour drive from the city, it might as well have been a five-hour flight. Friends occasionally come to visit, and I could practically see the thought bubbles escaping from their heads as they walk from their car to our front porch. Do they have neighbors? Does Jenny have anyone to play with? Where do they buy food?
It isn’t nearly as isolated as that, though in fact, we don’t know the people on our street. I see them nearly every day through the windshield of my car, but this is the country, not the suburbs of a place down south. No one greeted us with a homemade apple pie when we moved in. People tend to keep to themselves.
I do have nicknames for my neighbors: the girl walking her dog; the old couple walking; the one who doesn’t wave. In lieu of facts, I invent a myriad variety of stories.
The girl walking her dog is a college graduate still looking for a job; the old couple walking is doing so on doctor’s orders for the sake of the husband’s health; the one who doesn’t wave is the grown son of a white supremacist gang.
Jenny began preschool when we settled in, at a small school about ten minutes from our house. Each morning I drive past a horse barn with horses grazing on fresh grass, drive along a rutted dirt road, then pull into the parking lot.
Even when she was small, I used to hold Jenny’s hand as we walk through the glass doors into school, hug her goodbye at her classroom door like every other parent in the place before heading to work. Once she is settled in her classroom, I try — this is the only word for it — I try to escape.
Escape — Unlike many of the other parents, I don’t want to hang out at Jenny’s school. I don’t want to avail myself of the volunteering opportunities: the book fair, the auction. You couldn’t have paid me to stay for the swim meet season or the parent-teacher meets.
To be honest, I am confused by my own response to the school community. Don’t I want to be part of a community? Don’t I love my child and want the best for her?
Of course, I do — so why am I making the quick dash back to my car, keeping my head down, avoiding eye contact?
As I think, I slowly start to piece things together — More like a self-therapy session, a self-exploratory exercise.
As she grew up and I still ducked past the other parents congregated in small groups, I felt isolated, though of course, I was responsible for my own isolation. Certainly, I was still shivering in the shadow of Jenny’s illness. It was so sudden, and I have not digested the news just yet, there were so few good outcomes — I had trouble trusting that it was really not a dream.
The visit to the ER that year was something that refused to go away so easily.
“You could have easily lost her if you had ignored her symptoms of acute anemia for a couple more days” — The doctor in the ER had delivered his wisdom, so nonchalantly.
Those words ring in my ears often. I keep checking her nails and her skin tone for paleness. I keep asking her to stand on the scale worrying about a couple of pounds of weight loss, yet still laughing about it with her so she doesn’t worry too much. I end up writing back to her doctor the next day — A letter written in a matter-of-fact tone yet laced with worry. Often, I misdiagnose but I don’t relent.
I had read stories on the Internet about remissions and also relapses. As days go by, I held my breath, waiting, girding myself, preparing for the worst, and always thinking — what if?
What if she has a bad inflammation this time?
Has it spread to more than her colon?
Is it Crohn’s disease and not UC?
What if I let my guard down?
What if something goes wrong?
We had left India, yes — but we had brought the past with us. Parenthood, after all these years, was still new for me — and I had so far known it without stomach-lurching fear. Not anymore.
As I surreptitiously watched the parents, I envied their innocence. One of them told me that she had given birth to her youngest in the local hospital, and it was exactly like a hotel.
“They bring you a smoothie afterward,” she said.
But that hospital doesn’t even have a pediatric emergency, I thought. What if there had been an emergency?
I had begun to feel — and it was a bitter bitter feeling — that the world could be divided into two kinds of people: Those with an awareness of life’s inherent fragility and randomness, and those who believed they were exempt — That nothing wrong could happen to them and nothing actually did.
Parenthood had created an even wider gulf between these two categories. I was firmly on the shore of fragility and randomness, and I could barely make out the exempt people gliding across on the other side. They seemed like a different species to me.
To be honest, I resented them. They were having such a good life, almost like a fairy tale. I had it too at some point before it was taken away.
One day as I was sitting in the fall, all by myself in a half phase of meditation, I had an epiphany.
I had so far not known that there was a third way of being.
Life was unpredictable, yes. A speeding car, a slip of tire on the ice with a ravine below, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever.
To deny that is to deny life — but to be consumed by it is also to deny life in a different way in itself.
The third way — inaccessible to me as I slunk down the halls of Jenny’s school — had to do with holding this paradox lightly in one’s own hands.
To believe: It is true, the speeding car, the slip on the ice, the ringing phone.
It is true, and yet here I am listening to my girl laugh as we walk down the corridor.
Here I am giving her a hug. Watching her smile and tell me stories. To indulge in her innocence, however fleeting it might be.
Here we are — together in this -
Our only moment.