“Mom, can I have one dollar and fifty cents?” Jack asked me one afternoon.
“For what?” I asked back.
“The fifth graders are doing a fundraiser selling popcorn and punch. It costs one dollar for the popcorn and fifty cents for the punch.”
I got him the money, put it in a zip lock baggie, and packed it in his back pack. “It’s in the front pocket,” I told him, and didn’t give it much more thought. . .
. . . Until my husband called me during my commute home from work. He picked up Jack at the after school program, as usual, but Jack got into a funk on the way home and was refusing to get out of my husband’s car. My husband was flustered, trying to get irascible Jack into the house along with bouncy Emily, their backpacks, and his briefcase.
There wasn’t much I could do from the middle of the highway. “Tell Jack Mama will be home soon and we can talk about whatever it is.”
By the time I got home, Jack had come into the house. My husband was in the kitchen making dinner for the kids. “He’s upset because he didn’t get to buy popcorn today,” he explained.
Jack was in meltdown-mode as I approached.
“I had to go to stupid after care!” He shouted. “And they were selling the popcorn and punch on the blacktop after school. So I couldn’t get any!” His body flopped from chair to floor to bed, walloping space with his righteous indignation. I tried to talk with him, but he turned, sobbing, ran into his room, and slammed the door.
My heart has broken hundreds of times. Many of those times faded into the dusky, grey recesses of my mind and will never again see the light of memory.
Other times are indelible.
The memory of hugging my high school boyfriend good bye the night we broke up never fails to melt me. I can still feel my emaciated body- sweaty after ballet, underneath that hideous purple sweatshirt I wore incessantly to disguise my weight loss- clinging to him as we decided it was over. I remember, and ache and melt like a chunk of wax, and each time I reconstitute, but in a slightly different form, the molecules and crystals of me arranged with imperceptive difference, sometimes stronger, sometimes more fragile.
Of course the miscarriage is difficult to remember, but not for the reasons you might think. The hemorrhage in the grocery story was frightening and embarrassing and I still do not like going into that market.
Other moments aren’t as obvious.
For example: One spring afternoon of my freshman year in high school we went to visit my grandfather in the hospital. He was well enough to put on a flannel shirt and pair of pants that had become cavernous around his shriveling body. We had lunch in the cafeteria. I was in love with the embrace of my new denim jacket around my shoulders as we sat down. An elderly man– even older than my grandfather– walked by us, his hands shakily carrying his brown tray. He stumbled and a saucer of peas fell, sending a shower of green, vegetable beads across the maroon and navy carpet. The man stooped and tried to sweep them back into the bowl. I’ll spend the rest of my life wishing I had gotten up to help him, but at that moment, I was suddenly hit with the realization my grandfather was dying. My jacket had stopped feeling nice, as I watched that man’s gnarled hands stroke peas off that ugly carpet.
It was one moment 25 years ago, but it might have been the saddest moment of my life. Even now, it hurts to write about it, and it is also painful to see the sentimental words with which I describe it. But when I remember it, those are the words, because I was 14 and sentimental.
Then there was awkward tragedy in seventh grade of being unfriended for a week by my best friend because I accidentally bought the same outfit at the Limited as her, except mine was in peach and hers was pink, but it didn’t matter and I ate lunch alone as quickly as possible and spent the rest of lunchtime in the girl’s bathroom so no one would see how destitute I was without her even though she was mean as a snake and we never should have been friends in the first place.
Years later, my grandmother had a heart attack. I went to see her at the hospital just as she was coming around from whatever drugs they had given her. She lamented missing the May Day breakfast that her nursing home had been about to put on. Is that what life becomes? I wondered, my heart aching for my grandmother who didn’t have much left in life to look forward to except a nursing home breakfast and my infrequent visits.
Sure. There have been plenty times Life showed me her delicate underbelly and then smacked me full in the face with how painful it is to be vulnerable.
Watching my son mourn his popcorn and punch had this effect on me.
He finally came out of his room and allowed me to love on him. He ate dinner ravenously, suggesting his grief had been made that much worse by hunger. I tried my maternal best to fix things with some cookie dough ice cream, his favorite. His eyes were still red and puffy, and he looked rather pathetic, spooning ice cream into his mouth.
“I don’t even know what kind of popcorn it was going to be,” he sighed.
“I know, pal, ” I said. “I get it.”
I really did understand.
Most days I come home from work hungry, tired, and cranky with little energy for situations like this. I pay minimal attention to the little dramas because I don’t want to inadvertently inflame them.
But something about my little son that night brought back the memory of that old man and his peas, and how much my heart still hurts when I think of it. I’ll remember Jack’s sincerely sad, swollen face pondering popcorn with the same heartache, even as he might forget all about it as he plows through life, collecting heartbreaks of his own.