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I am mired in the residue of a choice I made more than two decades ago, when I was young and needy and viewed the world through rose-coloured glasses. And though I live to tell the tale, it is a slog of a life in which I pluck bits of joy from the flotsam and manufacture what peace I can through the din of lawyers’ letters, angry words and interference.
Three extraordinary children are the product of my flawed marriage, all of them tall, strong, healthy and bright, though none fitting a familiar mould. It is a cliché to say that I am saved by my children, but maybe it is an understatement too.
My teenaged daughter walks closest by me along this rutted road. She knew her father longest, loved him most and is the most like him. She carries this weight through the haze of hormones and high school, and only stumbles sometimes under its weight. During a recent stumble, I laboured to set limits while making clear my boundless support. I evoked the troubles with her father as a factor in her struggles, and she was indignant.
“Not everything is about Dad!” she shouted. “I don’t think about him every moment, and neither should you.”
This was a truth I’d been suspecting for some time but couldn’t fully grasp.
Over the next few days my daughter found occasion to pull out old photo albums: for a school project; to post on Facebook for her oldest childhood friend, to show her brother’s long-lost curls to a friend of mine.
We revisited apple-picking excursions, trips to the pumpkin patch, vacations in the sun. And in case I was missing it, she spoke the lesson out loud: “Dad was nice once; we did fun things,” she said. “That’s what I remember.”
When I am not parenting alone, managing my household, meeting with frustrated teachers and school officials or writing, I play guitar. I play it badly and only to accompany my singing.
I gravitate toward music that reflects my state of mind, and so provide a magnifying glass on my soul every time I open my mouth.
A voice teacher told me once that to sing is to be vulnerable, and I can’t think of a greater truth. This is why I don’t sing in public very often and why my children are among the few to have this view on my soul.
To be honest I never thought they were listening, imagining myself to be a tinny, looped background track to their lives.
Last summer, on leave from work and with loads of sunshine to fuel my creativity, I put together a repertoire of cover songs that I fantasized could become my debut album.
I even gave this album a name – Songs of Love and Longing. Titles such as Restless, Trapped, Landslide and Cowboy Take Me Away had cast a spell on me and I played them endlessly.
One night, as I was singing my familiar litany, letting the guitar’s vibrations soothe my anxious heart after a long day of conflict and complication, my almost-teen son sat down to listen. This is the child who at a young age went off the rails for inexplicable reasons that only became clear once the marriage had imploded – he turned out to be the canary in the coal mine. He is the one who is attuned to trouble before others, who can see through adult lies and self-deception.
“Don’t you know any happy songs?” he asked me now. “No offence, Mom, but all your songs are kind of depressing.”
He played me a song called Happy, and then showed me the 24-hour video that goes with it – the world’s first 24-hour video.
This kid who overturned tables in his Grade 1 classroom and spent days in his dark bedroom, this kid was reminding me to sing happy, to be happy.
I pulled out a song I had wanted to learn called Better Things. I played it for him after a few days of practice. “How’s this?” I asked.
It’s really good to see you rocking out and having fun
Living like you’ve just begun
Accept your life and what it brings
I know tomorrow you’ll find better things.
“Better, Mom,” he said. “Keep it up.”
And my little one, what are his lessons?
I call him the icing on the cake – a child who shouldn’t have been, but came anyway to light the dark days: a six-year-old imp with a smile the size of Niagara Falls and a twinkle in his blue eyes so bright that it dims the bitter aftertaste of the father whose eyes he inherited.
His lessons are the ones that all young children teach us if we listen:
That reading one more story at bedtime is more important than three more minutes of sleep.
That it is better to snuggle and watch TV together than to watch TV alone.
That vegetables picked fresh from a garden are much tastier than vegetables wrapped in cellophane from the grocery store.
That being silly is almost always better than being serious.
That there is no end to the questions we can ask, or to the time we can spend answering them.
That once our tears have dried we can move on.
Irene Pax lives in Toronto.