One recent night in California, my son and I went out to dinner with close friends at a Berkeley restaurant. It was a faux diner—designed by vegans and former fern-bar denizens—with the trappings of the lefty elite: a children’s menu with béchamel-sauced “Mom’s” mac-and cheese; fresh-picked organic mesclun; butcher-paper table coverings and crayons.
I’d had an awful day. We were in the Bay Area to see my ailing parents. I’d already visited them with my eight-year-old the day before. My father, who has end-stage Parkinson’s Disease, is living in a group home; my bipolar mother is wheelchair-bound after many failed back operations.
And even so, I stumbled on a moment of grace—a very unexpected one.
I’d tried to prepare my son for his granddad’s hallucinatory confusion, his grandmother’s melodrama. My son and I had talked about death, more than once. How you talk to a child about a family member's mental illness I have yet to fathom. Still, we’d gotten through these visits, although my son admitted the morning after that seeing Granddad had been “a little scary.”
That day—the restaurant day—he’d stayed with our friends while I did more visiting and decision-making and anger-management jujitsu. My boy had hung with the teenagers who are my honorary nephew and niece. He’d watched endless streams of anime and flown the remote-control helicopter he'd received as a gift from my mother’s caregiver straight into a tree.
He took it in stride. He was doing fine. But I was not fine by the time we arrived at the restaurant, me driving all the kids in one car—“rental cars are so cool”—grinding my teeth as the three squabbled and riffed on everything from valley girls to worst high-school teachers in history to Teen Titans, complete with fake funny voices that were like acid on my one remaining nerve.
In the midst of a meltdown with relatives, I had my young son with me. My husband would be arriving soon, but that evening he was still on an airplane jetting towards us. Two days in, there were moments when my eight-year-old's demands and jokes and prodding little feet felt unbearable.
He wanted and needed to see his grandparents. Yet would I seem like a good person to him after this trip? I worried. Would he see me yelling in frustration at my mother? Would he see me unable to contain my sorrow?
“Do valley girls still exist?” I cut in, desperate to quiet the backseat chatter.
“They exist for us to make fun of,” said Honorary Niece.
My son, who has no idea what a valley girl is, launched into a shouted account about Cyborg from Teen Titans, a cartoon series with the most annoying theme song in this space-time continuum—a mix of the old Batman and Hello Kitty—and not a single joke that an adult would find amusing.
My mood as designated driver should be clear. My ability not to scream “Shut up!” at every twist and swerve along Highway 13 will sound heroic or foolish, depending on your perspective. These children, like all essentially healthy and much-loved children, were delightful and full of themselves and oblivious.
There’s a lesson in that for me, about living without questioning your right to do so. Maybe there's a lesson for everyone. But that evening, this was not my moment of grace. That car ride was about endurance.
In the restaurant, all three adults present were clearly fried. My friend the dad had just come home from another day at the salt mines. My friend the mom was way behind on a freelance editing project. I was still haunted by the most recent visit with my anxious, confused father. He had kept asking me who was in charge, as I spoon-fed him Rocky Road ice cream.
In this setting, the butcher paper and crayons were a blessing. We drew little creatures with the colors available—“oh, dear, there’s a crayon shortage,” our waitress apologized when we asked for more—goblins with lipstick and many-eyed trees in lime green and almost transparent pink.
I tried to depict my lipsticked goblin making a muscle. This is my feminist way, to combine the girly with the tough, but in this case I ended up with a lump in a strange position on an orange creature’s arm. I drew yellow streaks spraying from the bump, which then had me covering it with a plate.
But not before Honorary Nephew spotted it. “What’s that?”
“It looks like a tumor,” said Friend Dad.
"It's a feather. A plume," said Nephew. He was being kind.
“I was hoping for a volcano,” I said.
“It’s a banana,” said Honorary Niece. “She’s balancing a banana on her arm.”
So I turned it into a banana.
“Tumor Banana.” The dad grinned.
Then my oblivious son, waving his arms and trying to keep up, spilled his glass of lemonade. It soaked the paper in front of Honorary Nephew. Yet this didn’t faze Nephew. As the waitress in her retro horned-rimmed glasses rushed off for more lemonade and butcher paper, he took the joking one step farther.
He drew a funeral for the wet tablecloth. In purple crayon, he sketched a mock casket with a rumpled sheet, surrounded by stick figures:
Here lies Dennis the Tablecloth:
He was so reliably absorbent.
I’m sure my son didn’t understand why I sputtered a laugh. My guy was a bit peeved, I think, by my sudden gleeful response to somebody other than him. But I did laugh—not the big, cleansing guffaws of a Lifetime melodrama. No, this was the knowing snicker of my Sardonic Generation.
It was me, returned to me, absorbing so much pain but not yet absorbed. I found myself capable of that then. I'd flown across the country for all sorts of funerals, literal and figurative: The impending funeral of my father; the funeral of my fantasy family, the one that's never struggled with mental illness; the funeral of a girl once wracked by so much anger and guilt.
But right then, a funeral for a tablecloth was what I needed. Later in the meal, my sleepy son snuggled on my lap. We shared a piece of chocolate cake—well, he ate it all, except for the icing. He wrote “TB” on my goblin’s chest.
Tumor Banana, action goddess. I'll sing to that.