This story is from a memory over seven years past now, from a time in my life when everything was up for question. My marriage has since undergone a blessed death and rebirth, and the daughter whom I write about is now nearly eighteen and will graduate from high school soon. I am so grateful that I recorded this memory, for these are the ones, that I believe, define us.
She’s all dressed in her red bowtie and cumber bund, hair pulled back little girl style in a headband, making her face wide open and pure like the moon. A sweet little scratch from the kitten is on the tip of her nose. We’re early, we need to be there at 1 pm, and it is now 12:50. There isn’t any parking in this tiny local TV station lot, and the guy says I can drop her off and go find street parking down the way. I can’t just drop my 10-year-old daughter off to walk alone down some long driveway, so we turn around and drive far down the road. It is a steep hill and it is hot as we pound the pavement back up to the station. Walking in through the driveway, I see green robed high school students, the next act, assembling in the waiting zone. My daughter says that we have to go in through the double doors. She performed in this event last year, only her dad brought her and I wasn’t there.
We walk in, and on the TV screen in the tiny waiting lobby we see a close- up of other children in red bowties. Carol of the Bells is coming from their mouths. My mind can’t register that this is her chorus already singing. We’re right on time. The calendar said 1pm. I even say out loud that this must be another chorus singing the same song. A parent near me, scuffling with a toddler, looks at me with disdain and tells me, “That is them.“
“But I thought we had to be here at 1?”
I can already feel my heart filling with lead. She’s wearing a blue t-shirt with polka dots. “The performance time was 1, you were supposed to be here at 12:30.”
I put my arm around my daughter’s shoulders, her crisp white tuxedo shirt stiff with her disappointment. We move toward the outside viewing area. There is her chorus, staged under the impressive lights, perched high on “TV hill,” singing their hearts out while the TV camera pans their faces. The most glorious view of Santa Barbara is behind them. I see the gap on the riser where Marandah should be standing next to Ashleigh. Marandah is stoic as I whisper to her how sorry I am, how I was sure of the time, how careful I am to transcribe our schedule onto the calendar. It’s ok, mom, I know, it’s ok, I’m fine. Another mother notices us, gives a look of compassion, and gently strokes my daughter’s head. My eyes are burning. That first tear is about to fall. The chorus sings the second song and then it’s over.
We turn around, walk out, and begin our descent down the hill back to the car. My tears are falling fast now as I apologize over and over. I know these tears aren’t just for the fact that it’s my fault we missed this performance (I’m faintly remembering a crumpled chorus letter that noted the time change). I’m feeling the weight of my life, my responsibility to my children. The depth of my love and how any pain they feel is so profoundly my own. How bitter and defining a memory like this could be, how much influence I am bestowed as the one who must navigate through moments like these. But I am so tired. My marriage is fragile. I am feeling more alone than I have ever felt before in my life and I am honestly imagining what it would be like to be on my own. It scares the hell out of me. The tears stream out, the apologies flow. I know, she says, I’m fine, it’s ok. In the car, door closed, seatbelt on, her face wrinkles, those huge brown eyes turn red. She cries. We cry together. I drive on autopilot back toward our house.
As we exit the freeway, I’m offering for her to name anything she’d like to do with the rest of the afternoon. She offers a faint, curt “nothing.” I inhale and feel into my heavy heart.
And then something rises up in me, something strong, fierce, and bold. That part of myself that wants to be a cliff diver, spontaneous, free.
“Even riding roller coasters?”
I say, “I want you to remember this as a day where one bad memory was overshadowed by a GREAT one. So let’s go to Magic Mountain. You’ve been asking for me to take you there and now seems like the perfect time.”
“Are you serious?” Her voice is high, she’s got tears pouring down her face and she’s laughing hysterically. I join her in the crying hysterics and tell her that I am absolutely serious. We’re sitting in the driveway now, laughing and crying, she’s climbed up into my lap in the driver’s seat. I cradle this big 10-year-old girl and speak to her warbled through my tears. “I love you so much. There is nothing, nothing, I would ever do to hurt you intentionally.”
“I know,” she says, “I know that, Mommy.”
A quick change and little more than an hour later and we are pulling down the safety bar on her favorite roller coaster. She glances toward me with her wild-child exuberant Marandah smile, the one where her whole face is alive. I see her at age one, age two, age three. We flip upside down, she screams, I howl, we are alive together. For three hours, we ride Ninja and Revolution over and over; we swing on the swings, eat corn on the cob, and consume a ridiculous amount of sourballs. We hold hands. She tells me this is the best best Best day ever. This is so fun. I can’t believe we’re doing this! Which rollercoaster is your favorite, Mom? I love you so much Mommy!
Our last ride, a pitch black plunge in the front seat of the coaster, we reach the pause before the loop. I am aware of the mantra-infused rudraksha seeds on my prayer mala pressing into the back of my neck. The full moon is unobstructed right above us. The profundity of the moment embracing and glaring.
She yells, “Are you having fun?”
“Absolutely,” I yell back, “It’s just a little rough when my head rattles.”
To this she exclaims, “I LOVE it when my head rattles! That’s part of the fun!”
The drive home is dark and windy. Santa Ana winds up to 70 miles per hour. I feel safe, strong, but on alert. Everything is a metaphor right now. Rattling heads, wind, and the full moon. Off to the left, a fire is burning. My mother informs me during a cell phone call (to find out why she couldn’t spot Marandah on the telethon) that this fire is consuming homes on the other side of the mountain range. My daughter asks for reassurance that we’re safe. I tell her yes, but that I am going to keep driving, not stop for food until we’re clear. I’m stunned by the eerie beauty of the bright orange blaze glowing against the black night. More metaphors, I think, the burning of homes, sparks, fuel, fire. Masala and flames. I felt burning in my heart today. Combustible, uncontrollable heat.
The iPod is on shuffle and a kirtan to Durga begins to play. DurgaMa. Powerful, wrathful mother. She sits on a lion, protects, defends, and slays. I inhale deeply; savor this day for all of its complicated, potent simplicity. My satisfied, sleepy daughter, bewildered by her good fortune, is buckled in behind me. As the fire diminishes in my rearview mirror, and the forceful wind slams into my car, I am solid behind the wheel; driving toward all the unknowns in my life.