Monday, August 2, 2010

Exile Island

On past seasons of "Survivor", there has been something called "Exile Island", in which one of the contestants is banished to an island of their own for a couple of days and left to build their own fire and forage for their own food. If I ever actually did make it on the show and then was one of the unlucky ones sent into exile, that's where you'd see Liz go mad.

I'm not good with lonely. Too much isolation as a child and maybe just too social a creature. I like my time by myself, don't get me wrong. It's when I'm alone not by choice, for too long a period, without something to accomplish that I run into trouble. This weekend was such an example. Yes, it was a gift that Ben took the kids out of the house, and yes, I needed that bed-rest to get over this pneumonia. It was all appropriate. It just wasn't comfortable.

I rented some movies on Friday foreseeing the long hours to fill. Unfortunately, I chose those movies while I had a hundred and two degree fever. I even went so far as to forget them at the store, returning an hour later, sheepishly, to retrieve them. I managed somehow to put together the perfect storm of depressing films. At this point, I can barely remember them. Saturday was a blur of fever, violent coughing and some serious spaciness. There were a couple of French films I watched back to back, straining to read the subtitles through my headache. I think one was about Edith Piaf. I do know that children were abandoned and abused, parents were ghoulish, cold, French monsters.

I have been feeling, in this very rough patch with Mihiretu, like a pretty terrible mother. It's been a dark period of snappy, grumpy overwhelm. I haven't been enjoying him, have only wanted to escape, even for a moment. Watching these horrible parents ruin their children, in my haze, I saw myself.

Even though I was so out of it, I knew I was on a downward spiral. I tried to shift gears and put "Survivor" in the DVD player. I can always count on it to make me happy, to help me forget what's bugging me.

But the storm swirled around me again. The episode we had reached was the one "Survivor" episode I can remember that made me cry. Not get a little misty, that happens a lot, but full-on lose it. One of the contestants, a young woman named Jenna, quits the game to return to her mother who is sick with cancer. Her mother has had the disease for many years, she was fairly stable when Jenna left, Jenna had even done "Survivor" once before - we're watching the All-Star season - but for whatever reason, every day on the show, Jenna grows sadder, more concerned, more remote. Ultimately, there's a big scene at a challenge where she reveals to all that she's leaving. Everyone cries. And, yes, that was sad but here's what got me. She gets on the boat and as we watch her go across the sea, we read "Jenna rushed to be at her mother's side. Her mother died eight days later." I can't even write that without tearing up. I, of course, remember being at my dad's side in those last weeks and days, remember how desperately I need to see him, touch him, know that he was there, at least for awhile longer.

By this time I was sitting on my couch sobbing in the dark. I'm failing as a mother, the one thing I really want to be good at, we all just die and leave each other anyway, and, Jesus, I have pneumonia so maybe I'm not Jenna. Maybe I'm Jenna's mother.

Ben called at that moment, thank God. He talked me out of my tree, or at least down a few branches. I turned off the TV and took myself to bed. Sunday I woke up with a much clearer head and, for the first time in five days, no fever.

By the time the kids returned with Ben at midday, I had made some decisions. Beyond my devotion to my husband, I knew that I loved my children and my role as their mother more dearly than anything else in my life. I always know that, I live that, but I because I hadn't seen them in a couple days, I could come to it anew. I resolved to come fresh to Mihiretu, to treat him with as much patience and respect as I could muster. I was going to remember that he was three, that he'd been through a lot, that when he pushed me towards the edge, the edge that I sometimes fear I could very well fall off, it wasn't personal. That when he says he wants a different mommy, he'd probably say that to the different mommy, too.

This morning, when Mihiretu was throwing his egg-covered silverware across the dining room because I wasn't cutting his toast correctly, I looked the other way. I praised Mae for how politely she was eating her meal. When he started to hit me, I got up from the table calmly and went to wash the dishes. When he finally sat down again to eat, I told him how great it was that he was sitting in his seat, that he was eating his eggs. And I wasn't the least bit sarcastic.

Occasionally, someone will go to Exile Island that you just know is going to lose it. They're the super-neurotic or the weeper. But once in a while, someone like that will emerge from the experience stronger and clearer. They'll have the dark night with themselves and it'll strip them to their elements. Maybe I'm one of those. Maybe I'm stronger than I think.


  1. god you are such an amazing writer. so sorry you had a crap weekend on Exile Island - but sounds like maybe it was just exactly the right thing. next year, please skip the illness and come to camp. :-)

  2. by writing these words, you clearly, at least to me, are NOT failing at motherhood. It can't be fail/'s all way too gray for that. You are doing it one day at a time and learning and growing as you go. There is no study guide, there is no final exam, there is no immunity idol. Wait, there IS an immunity idol... but is anyone ever really immune?

  3. First, I can totally relate to not being able to be alone for too long. I enjoy my own company and even completed a silent two-and-a-half-day retreat last year, but wow - was I ever ready to talk to anyone who'd listen to me for about six days after that!

    Second, you are so NOT a terrible mother. I don't mean that in a trite way. I mean it in a way that's supposed to convey that we all have bad days and weeks and even months, and the fact that you're examining what you do with your kids and why you do it, is demonstrative of the fact that you are doing the best possible thing for them. Maybe the break was exactly what you needed...and maybe it wasn't enough yet. I admire you for having the guts to say what you've said, to question yourself, and then to dive back in to parenting with new determination.

    Third, I wonder if you've ever read a book called "Raising your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I just borrowed it from the library and have started reading it. I've heard lots of terrific things about it, and when I read about Mirihetu throwing his fork when you cut the toast differently than he'd expected, I was reminded of this book. I'm finding it helpful, even at the beginning points.

    Anyway, enough rambling from me. I'm thinking of you, and hoping your week gets off to a good start!