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Where We Fail



Tom was traveling on Monday. The older girls were ready for school, Cassandra was still asleep. I slipped out, latched the gate, and ran them the six blocks, dropping them at opposite ends of the school. Turning back onto my street, I see Cassandra walking up from the gas station in her pajamas, beside a scruffy man with a bike. As I pull in, fall from the car and hold her, he says, "I know you're scared, but if I ever see her on the street again, I'm calling the cops."

I say in a shaking voice, "I checked on her, and she was sound asleep. I drove my other kids to school. My husband works in the back, in a detached office." He says, "Is he there now?" I say, "yes," and wait for Cassandra to contradict me. I know she would have checked. He leaves.

Cassandra asks curiously how long they'd jail me. We hug and talk. I promise that I will never, never, never leave her alone again. I make her promise that she will never, never, never go out in front again, even if she can't find dad or me. She eats breakfast. We take a slow walk over to her daycare, me moving underwater with my heart squeezed into a thimble. I come back and sit on the stairs to Tom's office, sobbing, choking, thinking of the open door as the last evidence of my child. I drive to school with Olivia's backpack, left in my misbegotten haste to get out and back quickly. I run a bath, in which I lay and cry. I move to the bed, where I curl and cry.

A mom calls, the one I've nicknamed 'fearful mom.' I tell her, knowing that this is her nightmare. She says, "You can't do things like that. You're getting worse and I'm not the only one worried. Why should I believe you won't do it again, when you've had other warnings and didn't learn? You segment your mind, so your kids only occupy part of it. I don't know how you can do that. You turn everything into a story and make it not real." I have to hang up.

There's some truth to what she's saying. Last year, I forgot Cassandra in the car at the school's open house, distracted by scattering kids and another mom in my car. I was agitated about a school issue, talking while I got out. Cassandra even set off the alarm by unlocking the door when I was on the other side of the fence, freeing her arms from her car seat to do it. I still didn't get it. I clicked it off. When I arrived at the classrooms, I asked the other moms which sister she was with, and got blank looks. It finally hit me. I ran and ran and ran. Past the classrooms, past the lunch benches, past the playground, around the fenced-in parking lot to the car. I held her and we rocked and cried, and rocked and cried, and I promised I would never get so distracted again. The next day, I asked if she'd cried the whole time, imagining her watching me walk away. She said she cried a little, and then she drank her juice box.

I think about whether my friend is right, that I'm a serial abandoner, driven to put my children at risk until the terrible thing does happen. Whether, no matter what I say and mean with all my heart, I'll be betrayed in the end by my segmented mind. We believe the same thing, my friend and I: without constant vigilance, the terrible thing will happen, and it will be all our fault. The only difference between us is that she lives her fear, and I push mine away again and again, refusing the visions of malevolence lurking and waiting.

But my denial led me within a hairsbreadth of hell, forcing one foot in front of the other the rest of my life. I'd have gone through the motions because my other daughters needed me, and because I didn't deserve the release of death. The question isn't whether I'd do it again. The question is, what kind of mother would take such a risk in the first place? Because this is the kind of mother I am.

Going to bed that night, two little wise women come in where I lay with Cassandra. They say, "Mom. Today was a hard day, and we all learned a lesson. But nothing bad really did happen. You can't stay so sad forever. Tomorrow, let's start over and keep the lesson but not the sadness." They also say, "Cassandra, what were you thinking? You know that if you stayed inside, you'd be safe and someone would be right back." She cries for the first time, but they don't relent. "You wanted an adventure, but what you did was dangerous. Tomorrow, no more adventures."

Cassandra falls asleep, untroubled. I go back to my room and cry, not for the last time but for the last time with shattered abandon.

I sleep a little finally, in the early morning hours, and wake up with two new perspectives. One is that I didn't leave a nave child who woke confused and scared. She's startlingly savvy and always has something in mind. Lately, her Barbies have enacted elaborate scripts in which they outsmart the bad guys. She wanted to test them out. The sisters are right.

There's no tragedy that isn't, in hind sight, foreseeable. A sister holding a slippery little hand where the iron yawns away on Golden Gate Bridge ...a father watching a game, relieved that the kids are playing quietly...the husband taking the baby to daycare, distracted with a deadline. All of these changed in a moment from a compromise to get through one more day, to a perfectly obvious set-up for disaster.

If I accept all the blame, her rescue scenario is perfect and tempting to repeat it. She needs to share responsibility, which doesn't in the least diminish mine. I tell her that it was a not-smart thing I did, but it doesn't mean I'm a not-smart person. And what she did was also not smart, but it doesn't mean she's a not-smart person. We both need to be smarter about keeping her safe. No one's smart enough to court danger and count on getting away – not me and not her. She cries again. I'll notice, telling someone later, that the story makes her smile until I bring up her promise and my promise, implying her guilt with my guilt. Then she cries.

The other thing I know when I wake is that the guy on the bike is a jerk. By my calculations, I've actively cared for this child over 30,000 hours so far, compared to the 5 minutes that gives him the right to judge me. He thinks the threat of cops might change my behavior since almost losing my daughter isn't enough for my sort. A friend drops by and, stroking my hair, tells me to let it go. I do, but I think of all the unlucky parents. How rabid we are in finding a reason it couldn't have been us, figuring out why they got what they deserved and it's not just chance. No matter how deep of a mountain of guilt they crawl under, pulling it over their heads, we're ready to throw on a few more stones.

My husband calls from his business trip, in a city whose name I couldn't have come up with if my life had depended on it. We agree that we'll get better about this too. He's wonderful. For all the things we disagree about, in the important things I'm so grateful to have him. He says he could have done the same thing, but he would have solved the problem – he would have turned on cartoons before he left. They'd have sucked her into the vortex as she walked down the stairs. I laugh, for the first time since. He's right, as much as I hate the TV. She went out because she was bored, not scared. But I'm nervous that he would still do that. I say that I've been reconsidering my trip to the monastery. He urges me to go, that the lesson will stand equally for both of us.

I arrive late, the last 15 miles winding forever. My cell phone doesn't work, on this thin line carved between rocks and ocean. I get there just before Vespers. When I come back to my room, a deer is gazing around the wall at me over the railing of my patio garden. Is there any way a deer can look other than full of compassion? It's those eyes that are all pupil, the whites only showing in distress. All other times, the black envelops you with a distinct impression of concern.

Cassandra's eyes have that fathomless darkness, but reflections of light dance on them in a way I don't notice as clearly with my blue-eyed daughters. Close up, would the deer have light dancing on her eyes too? It seems not. Her eyes seem to drink it all in, and hold it softly. There's no self, giving glints of light back to their source. I open the door and she doesn't startle. I walk slowly to three yards from her, and she turns without urgency. Another deer walks to her side and they head down the steep hill.

Coming to the railing, I see they're a herd of five, maybe a family. Their muzzles are one-third nose, covered with downy skin like black figs. They're all small, but some are smaller. I don't remember deer having ears like rabbits, but rounder and fringed with black. They walk the edge of the thicket at the base of the hill. There's a rustling on the other side, but they don't run or even walk away. They walk towards the corner, curious, and peer around.

I place the photos of the girls in my room. Veronica and Olivia go on top of a Bible left on a ledge. Cassandra's photo, the one I could've not stood to see today, shows her laying back on a rug in an orange velour dress, her straight brown hair spread out. Taken from a top-of-the-head angle, her eyes are long-lashed curves above a Mona Lisa smile, hands folded, edge of a frothy slip showing under her dress. I rotate it so she's facing down and tuck it in over a small, framed Mary and her baby. Cassandra floats like an angel above them, haloed hair, stripe-stockinged legs jutting diagonally into black space.

Before the Eucharist, I eat, demonstrating that the superstitious side of Catholicism does not bind me. But the next day, I decide to fast for an hour, according to protocol. This demonstrates to myself that I'm not bound by my rebellion. I think that it's as hard to have an adult relationship with the religion of your childhood as it is with your parents. Other religions are exotic fruit, easy to take what you like and leave the rest. But your childhood religion is a root vegetable, buried in the muck and manure of family. To some, the way mom prepared it is the ultimate comfort food. Others resolved never to go near it again once they had a choice. If you can make the preparation - the interpretation of metaphors and invention of rituals - into your own without succumbing or rejecting out of habit, I'm convinced they have the power to sustain and nourish. Then, fruit salad is good, as Thich Nhat Hanh says about combining religions. Staying true to my own taste, not reacting, is hard. But I do find value in fasting.

I'm hungry, though, so I decide to just peel and not eat an orange out in the sudden sun. I roll the peel in my hands, closing my eyes and spraying the mist onto my face. The mini-geysers shoot four inches up – what would the proportions be if earth were an orange peel? The bells ring for Eucharist in five minutes, but I don't get up right away. I could. I'm just messing with an orange peel - nothing that can't be interrupted. But that submissive thing gets to me, like all the bowing and genuflecting, and I have to hold something of myself back, it seems.

It's the submissive side of being a mom that got me too. There was no reason I couldn't have lifted her sleeping from the bed, or opened the blinds to wake her gently. We were early. It was a needless, pointless risk - surely my resistant side rearing its ugly head. This is the part that would've devastated me. This is the part I have the chance to forgive myself for and re-think now.

Later, the pair of fox plays their game, slipping under the boards that separate garden from garden, keeping our privacy. The chickadees visit, and a hummingbird. I have one at home that comes to the bushes outside our piano windows. That one seems to have a fondness for child-versions of Fr Elise because it comes around whenever the girls practice. This one seems over-frantic. I can hear his wings like a tiny helicopter through the closed windows. He comes right up to the glass, peers and darts.

I take this lesson too. I decide, here and now, that I'll live exactly as long as I need to, to finish what I'm here to do. This is a change of policy. I've been planning to die in five years. I have no reason to believe I will, but no reason to believe I won't. Five years seemed a useful increment. Less than a year from death, and all you can do is abandon your plans and treasure the people you love. Five years is enough to do the things you think you have in you, with no time to waste.

So maybe I'll write my book in five years, or in my lifetime, maybe I won't. But if it's a book that needs to be written, it'll get itself written with or without me. I'll have more sense about taking time to be careful, sense about not trying to do it all, all at once. But I won't have more fear. The fear won't keep my children safe. It'll just steal our lives away bite by bite, instead of in one gulp.

I'm a lower-case catholic, from the original meaning of the word: ordinary, common, generic, all-inclusive. I once read about the Mosaic God, and thought, "Wow, someone has the same image for God that I do," before I realized they were talking about the God of Moses. I picture each of us as a shape of murky glass, fitted into a perfect pattern. When each person clarifies his own vision of God - talking, painting, playing, imagining, writing, singing and dancing her view of God into focus - the full spectrum of God will be visible. I don't normally attend church because there's no communication in communion. We see the Bible, not just as the Word of God, but as the Last Word of God. We're missing the point.

So paradoxically, I've come to the hermitage to talk, and have been thwarted. The monks who are "qualified" to talk about theology are in Italy. The concept of not being qualified, to me, is like saying, "I don't know how I feel, ask a doctor", or "I don't know what I think, ask a psychologist." If faith comes from within, spiritual authority is an oxymoron. There's no one else qualified to speak for you. The person at the desk thinks that I want answers from the monks, but what I want is company in asking the questions. The answers don't matter nearly as much.

This is what seems clear from my own chip of light: Christ taught us how to act from love, not fear. Fear gets in the way of love. Fear kills love, on this mortal plane.

I'm also reminded that Mary lost her child in the temple. Why wasn't she paying attention? What distracted her when he wandered away? In his divine wisdom, couldn't he have told her where he was going? It seems that even the best of mothers finds cause to blame herself. I pray that the worst of mothers finds forgiveness. I pray that all the fallible ones in between find mercy like I did.

I scare myself. Fearful Mom is right; I do have a segmented mind. Less than two months later, I've forgotten Cassandra in the car again while I walked 10 steps away. After running back and apologizing, I asked her why she didn't say anything. She said she was looking out the window, thinking, and didn't notice I was gone. She's truly my child. We're both looking out some inner window, our mental landscape pre-occupied with teeming hordes of unruly ideas, demanding to be put into order. We're not absent-minded; we're elsewhere-minded. But at 4, she's allowed. And I'm missing a 4-year-old landscape that I'll never have access to again.

I notice more. She tells the cat that he has a smart brain, and he knows not to tango with the gray cat. She tells me that everything is made up from love, and that's God. God wears a big hat and handsome clothes, she says. From her description, it seems that God wears a sombrero. I learn from her that the world will hold together just as long as it needs to, to do what it's here to do. I can trust it to spin without my direction long enough to drink her in. There are more than reflections in her dark eyes, there are sparks that I need to catch, and I find that she's not a distraction but part of my direction.