That’ll Never Happen to Mommy and Daddy
“But don’t worry girls, that’ll never happen to Mommy and Daddy,” your mother reassures you and your little sister with a warm smile and crinkled eyes. It was your best friend’s parents. Something peculiar was happening to them. They were getting…divorced? A strange, incomprehensible word to your 6-year-old self. So the night your mother heard the news, after story-time in your little sister’s Noah’s Ark themed bedroom (a nightly ritual) she endeavors to explain the concept to the two of you. No doubt your best friend had tried to explain it to you earlier that day as well, but as you can imagine, a conversation between two 6-year-olds about divorce may not have been the most comprehensive. Or who knows? Perhaps the best way for a 6-year-old to understand such a heavy topic is indeed from the perspective of a like-minded individual: another 6-year-old. Either way, your mother explains the concept to you, and that night as she tucks you in, you feel comforted. You won’t have to worry about spending a single night at your father’s house separated from your teddy bear that you accidentally left behind at your mother’s house: a terrible fate that had befallen your best friend. Your mother lingers in the doorway and says goodnight as she turns off your light. You hug your teddy bear and close your eyes, burying your face into the soft cocoon of pillows and blankets piled atop your bed. A few minutes later your father comes in. Your eyes are heavy with sleep, so you pretend not to be awake. Smoothing your hair, he kisses you goodnight, and as he turns to leave you smile to yourself. You hug your teddy bear tighter and drift off to dreamland. All is right in the world.
“Would you stop screaming at me about this, Mark?! There’s nothing I can do about it at the moment! Our daughter is upstairs, delirious with fever!” Your mother’s exasperated voice rises up the stairs, reaching every corner of the house. It pierces your ears. You stumble down the dark hallway towards your parents’ bedroom, teddy bear in hand. Their voices are too loud. Why are they yelling in your ear? But wow, a daughter delirious with fever. That doesn’t sound good. You reach your parents’ bedroom after nearly falling over several times as you staggered down the hallway. Oh. You’re the daughter delirious with fever. Why aren’t your parents in their bedroom? Oh, that’s right. Their voices were coming from downstairs. Or was it upstairs? Either way, you can still hear their yelling, but it’s muffled by the pounding of your head. Why is the world spinning? You collapse on their bed, and their sheets feel cool against your burning forehead. You can’t remember how long you’ve been there, or how long they’ve been yelling. Did they start yesterday? Last year? Have they always been yelling? You don’t think so. Your body is so warm with fever that within moments the sheets are no longer cool to the touch. Darn. You’ll just have to stumble down the stairs into the war zone and ask your mother for some more cool sheets. Which way are the stairs again? Oh well. Never mind. Oh good, they’ve stopped yelling. It was hurting your head.
“Honey, do you have the car keys?” Your friend’s father asks from the driver’s seat.
“No. I’m sorry, dear. I thought you had grabbed them.” Their mother answers from the passenger seat. Oh no… Here come the deep sighs, the grumbling, and the yelling. The “I can’t believe you don’t have them. I told you to get them. Can’t you ever remember to do anything I ask of you?” “No. I thought you had them,” Brace yourselves, here it comes… “but that’s okay, honey. I’ll go get them.” He pats his wife’s hand and jumps out of the car to retrieve the keys. What? You know that’s not the right response. Where is the grumbling, the yelling? Well, this is the first and only time you’ve been around your friend’s parents and seen them interact. Maybe this is an unusual occurrence. You look to your friend to see if the same shock that you feel is registered upon their face. Nope. Perfectly normal. Hmm. Maybe they’re just shy. After all, your parents don’t usually yell around your friends either. But they also never act like this around your friends. They act hospitable to one another, friendly at best. Maybe the more times you’re around your friend’s parents, the more they’ll feel comfortable acting normal around you. Acting how your parents act.
“Hey,” you whisper to your friend, gesturing at their parents as their father jumps back in the car with keys in hand, “do your parents ever argue?”
“Uh, no?” They reply, their brows furrowing, and a confused look crossing their face. Hmm, odd. Their father starts the car, and off you all go on a day trip. When they drop you off at your house that night, you pull into the driveway and you’re all laughing. You step out of the car, and thank them for the best time you’ve had in a while. As you say it you realize that you hadn’t said it just to be polite. It was true. It was the best time you’d had in a while. Waving, with a grin you can’t seem to wipe off of your face, you watch them drive away. As you replay the day’s events in your mind, you realize that you can’t recall a single moment in which the parents argued or raised their voices. Not one. You walk up your driveway, humming a tune to yourself, the grin still plastered to your face. A whole day without parents yelling; that’s a record. As you start up the front steps, you hear noises coming from inside. You stop humming. The noises are muffled, because you haven’t opened the door yet, but they are still distinguishable. Your grin suddenly disappears from your face. You sigh and sit down on the steps, covering your ears to block out the yelling. Never mind; today’s not a record.
“I can’t keep doing this, Cate!” You hear your father yell. You’re old enough now, and have seen enough other families and couples interact to realize that this isn’t normal. But it’s your normal. This is your family, and you just have to accept that. It’s bad this time, though. Their voices are nearly hoarse, they’ve been yelling so much. You decided to take refuge in your room when it started, quietly putting your dish in the sink and slipping upstairs, lending a blind eye and a deaf ear to the situation. Everything’s fine, you’re just going upstairs because you want to. You have a sock drawer to organize, or a desk to tidy up. Hours may have passed since you shut yourself in your bedroom; your clock ran out of battery, so you don’t know. All you know is that your parents are still screaming at the top of their lungs, and you now have a very neat sock drawer; you’ve organized and reorganized it five times by now. Your socks might revolt and run away if you organized them again so you look around your room for something else to occupy yourself with. You pick up your teddy bear, and gaze at him for a moment. Why? Why can’t your parents get along? Why can they turn any situation into something to fight about? Why is your family like this? You ask your teddy bear. He doesn’t answer, so you hurl him across your room, taking the brunt of your confusion, sadness, and anger as he hits the wall at full force. They’re still yelling. Your face crumples and hot tears begin to roll down your cheeks. You run to retrieve your teddy bear, and clutch him tightly to your chest. You’re sorry, you tell him through sobs. He seems to accept the apology. You cry as you cling to him, a tangible representation of your childhood before your home was a war zone. Oh, how you wish you could go back to those early days of peace. Finally, you hear the front door slam, feel the house shake from the force, and then there’s nothing but unwavering silence. Usually silence is peaceful, relieving; but not this silence. You hear your father’s truck start up, and rush to the window just in time to see him drive away. Your mother walks down the hallway, and starts up the steps. Without even seeing her, you’d know the sound of her gentle footsteps and soft gait anywhere. You wipe your eyes with your sleeve; she can’t know you’ve been crying. She knocks quietly on your door, and then your sister’s. You both crack your doors open just enough to peek out and make sure the coast is clear. She’s the only one standing there, so you both emerge.
“I’m so sorry, girls.” She musters a small smile, but her eyes forget to join in. They look tired. The yelling has gotten so bad she doesn’t even bother to hide it anymore. Not that she ever successfully hid it, but she at least tried to.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” you reassure her, a sad smile crossing your face. You hope your eyes aren’t giving away the fact that you’d just been crying. “Where did Daddy go?”
“I’m not sure, honey. He just left,” she said with a sigh. You never figure out exactly where he went. He did come back though, hours later, and for some inexplicable reason he came bearing gifts. Two plastic trash cans. A red one for your sister, and a blue one for you. Good; you need one of those for your bedroom. You only wish that you could ball up your feelings like a wad of notebook paper and throw them in the trash can. You try. It doesn’t work. Great present, Dad.
“Daddy, I’m not feeling so well,” you tell your father as he stirs the contents of a pot on the stove. “I don’t think I’ll be able to eat dinner.”
“Okay, honey. Just go sit on the red couch though. Mommy and Daddy need to talk to you and your sister,” he says, gesturing to the intended couch. You’d bet anyone a hundred dollars that it’s the most comfortable one upon which they’ve ever sat. Nothing bad could ever happen when you’re curled up on it. The four of you gather on the couch, and your father starts to speak.
“So girls, as you’ve noticed, Mommy and Daddy haven’t really been getting along too well lately.” He continues, and you can’t believe it. Your sister bursts into tears as he explains, but you just sit in shock. She asks a thousand questions, each one broken as she chokes back sobs. Your mother asks you if you have any questions that your sister hasn’t already asked, but you just sit in silence. They tell you not to worry, that it’s not your fault. They reassure you that they still love you and your sister more than anything. But that’s not what you want to hear, because you already know that. What you want to hear is what you don’t know anymore: that they still love each other. But they don’t say that.
You squeeze your eyes shut, and shake your head. It can’t be real. This is your family. They grumble, and they fight, and they yell, but they’re your family. How will you be a family after this? You squeeze your eyes shut tighter, and shake your head harder. You pinch yourself, knowing that this is just a terrible dream you must awake from. It’s not working. But it must be a dream, it must be. She promised. Your mother promised that this would never happen to Mommy and Daddy. But that evening, on that red couch, you realize it just did.