Editor’s note: This story won first place in the “Write Your Own Lesson in Manners” contest concluding July 15. The challenge was to select from a list of prompts from the book A Lesson in Manners and write a story using those items. Thanks to all who entered!
I stood staring at the prayer candles at the front of the church I grew up in. It had been a long time since I’d been in a Catholic church and even longer since I’d lit a candle for anyone.
I felt out of place in the old, drafty brick building, and yet a sense of calm settled over me, one I hadn’t known in years. It wrapped its warm arms around me and held me until I could breathe again. I slid a few dollars in the donation box, struck a match, and chose a candle in the back row. The wick lit stubbornly, but I watched it grow and throw a rosy shadow on the wall.
My grandpa died 23 years ago, and I hadn’t returned to this church since his funeral. I wasn’t even Catholic anymore, but I needed this. This was his church, the church I’d married my now ex-husband in, the church our son was baptized in. Mesmerized by the dancing flames of a dozen candles, I stood transfixed, thinking not about my grandpa but about the last few weeks. How I wished he was still with me. He’d know what to do, and if not, he’d at least listen without judgment.
Three weeks ago, a judge declared my divorce final, granting me full custody of my son. My lovely son, now sitting in the back row rolling his eyes at me. Where did everything go wrong? How did I get here, divorced and regretting almost two decades of my life? I said a silent prayer for Grandpa, to Grandpa, and to anyone else listening.
Then I turned and strolled toward my boy. Ah, the eye roll. Lovely.
“Ready?” I asked as I stopped at the pew Kilian was sitting in.
“I’ve been ready the whole time. Let’s go.” He burst from the pew and threw the double doors open, bounding through the entrance with no regard for the sanctity of the place which we were leaving. Typical Kilian.
Named after my grandpa, Kilian was our first child. As I cuddled him the first night home, I wondered how on earth I had ever survived without him. Lately, though, I’d been wondering how I’d ever survive until he reaches adulthood.
He’d been a sweet and truly happy baby, but that all changed sometime around his third birthday. He’d get mad at the little things, like not having enough chocolate chips in his cookie or having the blue plate when he really wanted the red one. I’d always heard that age three was worse than two, and I began to believe it. Kilian had always been easy to entertain, whether it was playing at home, a quick trip to the store, or the three hour-plus-potty-breaks drive to visit his aunt and uncle in Minneapolis. All he needed was a few books, toys, and a video to occupy him.
Now, being in the same room feels like a higher altitude, little oxygen to breathe. Everything is always wrong. I’m wrong, the world is wrong, and it’s always my fault. At least, that’s what he tells me.
Shortly after the anger started, the defiance and arguing started. First it was over taking a bath and putting on pajamas. Then it was about wearing clothes to school, hanging his backpack on his hook in the classroom, doing the task the teacher asked of him, and so on. Not only did he openly defy everyone, he argued everything. He. Must. Always. Win. Everyone lies. We’re all wrong. Does 4+4=8? No. Yes, it does. Count four and add four more. See? Eight. No, you’re wrong. You’re lying. The Boston Tea Party occurred in Boston. No, Mom, it was Philadelphia. Kilian, the book says “Boston Tea Party”. It’s called the BOSTON TEA PARTY! Well, the book’s wrong. My teacher said Philadelphia. THAT WAS THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE! Pay attention. Just because you hear it wrong, doesn’t make what you hear right. You’re the worst mom ever! I hate you!
I can say with all honesty that his anger became my anger. I couldn’t be around people long without leaving the room in a huff or making snide comments. I, too, became difficult to live with. I couldn’t look at my husband without resentment. You. You do nothing to help. You gave me this child, and now you won’t help! You and your family history of mental health issues. You and your paranoid mother, your drunken father, your bipolar sister. You made him this way. And you just sit by and watch.
I made the mistake of saying so out loud one night after dinner. Kilian was watching a movie, a rare quiet, calm evening that I ruined. It had seemed like a good time to talk about making a change, getting help.
“Jim, your family has so many issues. Why can’t you see it? What if this is genetic? We really need to get a handle on Kilian before we lose him. Please help me.”
I watched as multiple emotions played across Jim’s face, red creeping up from his collar and coloring his pale complexion. Then it happened. A fist to my gut, followed by my head being slammed on the dining room table. I really don’t know what happened next. I woke up in the hospital with Kilian clinging to me, crying.
He loves me, I thought. He hasn’t shown me love in almost a year. Kilian still loves me.
Kilian had been keeping watch over me and promised the nurse he’d press the call button when I woke. “Mama,” he whispered. “They took Dad away in handcuffs. Will he go to jail?”
“I don’t know, buddy. I guess it depends if I want him to or not.”
Then he lifted his head from my shoulder and I saw the black eye. Jim had gone after him, too? I didn’t think it possible.
“I tried to help you up, but he hit me and left.”
The doctor pulled the curtain aside and peered in at us. “Ah, Mrs. Sharpe, you’re awake. Do you remember what happened?”
“Not after the table coming at my face.”
“Well, your son is fine. We’ve already checked him over. Just a black eye. You have a concussion and, I’m guessing, quite the headache. You’ve also had a miscarriage.”
“What?” I hadn’t even known I was pregnant.
That memory brought me right back to the present. Had I had another baby, I might have felt obligated to stay with my ex. Thank you, Angel Baby. Instead, I filed charges and filed for divorce. Even though I felt I’d brought this on myself, opening my big mouth and blaming his family history, logic told me otherwise.
Kilian and I had a brief period after the Incident where we got along. When I asked him to do something, he’d oblige. He was agreeable and sweet, but being who he was, he couldn’t contain himself long. Soon we were back to arguing, back to defiance, and back to visits in the principal’s office.
Today I’d hoped to rebuild something of a relationship. I’d asked him to come to the church with me to light a candle before we went to the local aquarium. Something fun. We needed it. In the decade that passed since he’d last been a happy child and I’d been his cooing mother, so much had happened. A cooler filled with a picnic lunch and some drinks sat patiently waiting in the trunk of my Camry.
As I pulled out of the church parking lot, I glanced in Kilian’s direction. He sat stewing in the passenger seat—he was thirteen now and big enough to ride in the front—staring out the window, mumbling something under his breath.
“So, Kilian, what should we do first when we get to the aquarium? Sharks? Stingrays?” Let’s get this party started, I thought.
“Look, I know we don’t always get along, but you are my one and only, and I really love you. I need this relationship as much as you do. Why don’t we just pretend that we get along, and maybe for a while we will.” There was desperation in my voice, and tears threatened to spill over onto my cheeks.
I remained quiet the rest of the drive; I just couldn’t find any words. He shied away from my touch as I tried to take his hand. Duct tape fixes everything around the house, but what fixes everything between a parent and child? We pulled into the parking lot on the side of the aquarium and found a close spot in the shade. Heaven forbid I make him walk too far.
After buying our tickets, I let him choose what to see first. We walked silently to the stingray pool. The stingrays were especially social today, although my guess is they were getting hungry. I bought some food for the rays and offered it to Kilian.
“Only babies feed them, Mom.”
“And moms. If you’re not going to feed them, I will. I brought you here to have fun. Lighten up a little.”
“Stop embarrassing me!”
His abrupt declaration caught the attention of a young mother and her little ones. I tried to smile and hoped her babies didn’t one day turn against her like mine.
“Seriously, Kilian. Whatever it is you want to say, just say it. I’m not going to spend my day dodging your bullets and defending myself for doing things that all mothers do. Like trying to have fun with my child.” I offered him the cup of food as a peace offering.
“No!” he screamed as he knocked it out of my hands.
I could feel my own anger rising to the surface, warming my face and quickening my heart rate. I picked up the food and offered it to another mom for her frightened little girl. The little girl hid behind her mom, but I could see sympathy in the mother’s eyes.
“Thank you. Hang in there,” she whispered. “Do whatever you can to help him. I couldn’t help mine…” She turned to feed the rays with her little one. I wondered what her story was; it didn’t sound like it had a happy ending.
I turned back and Kilian was already running to the exit. Silently chastising myself for letting my workouts lapse, I ran after him, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. Suddenly, I stopped. That’s what he thinks I am: the big bad wolf. He really thinks I want to blow his house down.
I dashed out the doors and saw him running to the road. “Kilian, stop!”
He turned at the curb and looked at me, taking two steps toward me. There was a look on his face that I’d never seen before: peace. That peace scared me more than his anger ever had.
“Kilian, please come back. We need to talk. I love you and want to help you. You just need to let me.”
I couldn’t stop the tears now. They blurred my vision and threatened to flood the earth. My breath came in gasps, heart pounding in my chest. “Please. Let’s do this together.” Anxiety was taking over. The buildings were looming closer, pushing at me from all sides.
“I can’t anymore, Mom. No one can help,” Kilian yelled. He turned and darted into traffic. My vision went completely black as I heard the screeching tires and a loud thud. Was that Kilian or me hitting the ground? Silence.
My eyes fluttered opened. Faces blurred in and out of my vision.
“What…what happened? Where am I?”
“Really, Mom. We have got to stop coming to light candles. I can’t keep picking you up off of church floors.”
Kilian had a small grin on his face. Then he turned serious. “Were you thinking about that day again?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “I was back there again, and…”
“I know. That was six years ago. When will you let go?” Kilian reached under my shoulders to help me up. “She’s fine now; you can all go.”
The few people who’d been in the church had run over when I’d fainted and now backed away cautiously.
“I can’t let go. I almost lost you that day. You—”
“And you saved me that day. You and your fainting. If you hadn’t hit the pavement…”
“I know. Kilian, don’t ever do that to me again.”
About the author
Amy Lipke is a working mom and closet wordsmith who lives in central Wisconsin. You can follow her journey through the ups, down, failures, and accomplishments of motherhood at her blog, Beyond Bliss and Chaos.