I have always worked, hard. I have been career-driven since I was 17. Then I had kids and the whole “Work-Life Balance” thing that I had heard about got real. Except “balance” was a zen-like euphemism. There was no tranquil balance. “Cage Match” was more like it, with each side pummeling the other back and forth all day, every day. After Michael got sick, and especially after he died, it became a pure shitshow. I’ve just been plowing ahead, with huge help from my mom and my friends, doing the best I can to stay afloat. On most days, I think I do a reasonably good job.
Friday was not one of those days.
On Thursday, Shennie had gone to the school nurse complaining of a tummyache. The nurse called me on my cell phone, which I had (of course) left at home. Next she tried my office phone, but I was teaching. By the time I got the message a few hours later, Shennie was better and had gone back to her classroom. I felt like a mildly crappy parent for missing the call, but not too bad, since she was fine.
On Friday, Shennie woke up and said her tummy didn’t feel good again. My mom had gone back to the East Coast so I was on my own. We were halfway to school when it occurred to me that Shennie might get sick at school again, so I made a snap decision that, instead of getting out of the car with her brother, she could come to work with me. I hadn’t packed anything: no I-pad, or headphones, or art supplies, or snacks. Her backpack contained only her lunch and one library book.
This was a poorly thought out plan.
I had to teach two classes back to back, one at 9 and one at 10. One of my colleagues thankfully gave Shennie some markers and paper. In my first class, she just sat at a desk and colored and looked cute. I was balancing it LIKE A BOSS.
By the next class Shennie wanted to sit up with me in the front of the lecture hall. She was quiet at first but then started urgently tugging at my shirt. I stopped talking. It occurred to me that might have to go to the bathroom. Thirty-five students stared at me as I bent down to see what was wrong. “Mommy?” she stage-whispered, “I have a question: Are there any animals with blue fur?” Cue class laughter. Things went down-hill from there.
I ended class ten minutes early, much to my students’ delight, and headed back to my office with Shennie. She had fun pushing all of the buttons on the elevator. She showed me how she could cartwheel down the hallway. She commented, loudly, on the portraits of former deans that we have hanging up on the third floor: “Wow, that guy’s OLD!” “That guy’s FAT!” “That guy’s fat AND he has a stupid moustache!”
When we finally got back in my office she announced that it was time for lunch. I said that was fine and turned to put my course materials away. I turned back around 30 SECOND LATER to see that she had cleared off my desk. All the papers I had been grading, books, family photos, hand lotion, pens, etc… were piled up on the floor by the window and her lunch was spread out, picnic-style. “I need water,” she demanded. “At school we always have cups for water.”
“OK,” I said, “We’ll just go back down the hall to the water fountain.” “No, I’m too tired now. And I‘m so thirsty. You can just go find a cup and get me some.” She gave me her sad, puppy eyes. She was sick after all. I had to go down to our break room on the second floor to find a cup. Then up again and all the way down the hall to the water fountain and then back to my office.
I returned to discover that she had rearranged the furniture. Every chair, plus my trash can and recycle bin were stacked up to create an elevated bed of sorts that she could recline on. I handed her the water and went to drag my chair back around to my computer.
“I’m done with my lunch!” she announced. “And now I’m not thirsty anymore so I can water your plants!” Before I could stop her, she emptied the water into the plant on my windowsill – which is fake, because I kept killing my real plants by not watering them. Water spilled everywhere, including on the pile of stuff she had made next to my desk. I shouted at her that the plant was fake. “Why would anyone have a fake plant? That is very weird.”
At this point I realized it was time for me to do a Zoom call with two people who I am collaborating on a casebook with. I gave Shennie my phone to play with and turned to my computer to wait for the e-mail invitation with the link to the call. I waited and waited. No message. I called IT but they said there were no problems with the network. I went to check my day-planner to make sure I had the right date and saw that someone had scrawled “BY PREZENTS FOR SHENNIE” across the week in huge letters.
I finally gave up on the call and got my phone back from Shennie, only to find – you guessed it – that she had been deleting the email invitations as they came in. Then she handed me a picture of a person with a giant ponytail surrounded by rainbows. It was captioned “Mommy is LAW. She is fun and she is awsome.”
Then it was time for a Curriculum Committee meeting. After ten minutes Shennie climbed on my lap. She drew rainbows on the agenda. After 30 minutes she took her shoes off (*stinky feet* in a closed room). By 45 she was loudly saying that she was bored and wanted to leave. We all felt the same, and so we did.
Once we left the meeting room Shennie announced that it was time to go outside. “No sweetie, I have to teach another class in an hour and I need the time to get ready,” I said. “But when do you have recess?” she demanded to know.
“I don’t have recess. I’m the teacher. I usually just work at my desk between classes.”
“Well when do your STUDENTS have recess? They have to have recess.”
It occurred to me that she wasn’t actually sick after all. And that we were definitely going to need recess.
We went outside. We checked out the wacky action at Speaker’s Circle. We held hands and ran around the fountain. We browsed Mizzou-wear and school supplies at the Student Center. “Hey Kathy,” she sang out when we ran into a friend of mine, who also happens to be an MU-employee and the mom of one of her BFFs. We bought gummi worms. She bit off the heads and I ate the bodies.
When we hustled into my 3 o’clock class, I was, to put it mildly, less than fully prepared. It was in the same large lecture room as before. There was a white board in the front on the left side. This time, I at least had a plan: I gave Shennie some dry-erase markers and told her to entertain herself.
I noticed about 20 minutes into my lecture on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 33 that the students were tittering. I looked over and Shennie was just erasing the board. At 30 minutes they were chuckling. By 40, the were roaring with laughter. I looked over and Shennie was beaming in front of a white board that said this:
“Don’t worry!” One of my students finally managed to say through her giggles, “I got pictures of all of them. And I’m handling the Law School’s Instagram account this week. They’re all up there!”
“ALL?” was all I managed to say. Apparently there were many.
Shennie waltzed out to applause, waving at her fans – my students, who told her to come back anytime.
Back in my office, she tossed my stapler into her backpack (because it’s better than the one she has at home), shook up my San Diego souvenir snow globe “extra hard, to last the weekend,” and insisted that I take the elevator while she raced me down the stairs.
We picked Griffin up from school and arrived home. I walked in the door and was greeted by a load of dirty laundry, (which contained soccer uniforms necessary for tomorrow’s games), hungry pets, a full dishwasher, and an empty refrigerator. “It’s like Groundhog Day,” I thought to myself, recalling the Bill Murray movie about the guy who has to live the same day over and over.
Then I had a revelation that tonight we should order pizza and watch Groundhog Day.
Two weeks ago, we did a bereavement exercise on the first anniversary of Michael’s death. I made the kids write out their favorite memories of Daddy. They included him telling stories at dinnertime, going off the diving board together at the pool, and listening to the Beatles. None of them were the “Meaningful Events” – vacations, holidays, birthdays – that we often designate as times for special memories. They were ordinary, everyday occurrences.
The lesson of Groundhog Day, of course, is that in order to escape reliving Feb. 2 over and over, Bill Murray has to live his best, most generous and authentic life, in the context of a very ordinary, annoying, workday.
As the movie was wrapping up, it occurred to me that I had just experienced something like that, with the help of a definitely not-sick Shennie. She may not remember this day when she gets older, but I hope she does. I know I will until I die.
Let it be known, that on Friday, October 5, 2018, in the battle between Life and Work, Life definitely won.