It is Saturday morning and Hadley is in our basement setting up a playground for her gerbil, Dash. Dash, and his brother Yellow are the newest members of the Feyen household. We also own two fish: Flick and Ray, and thanks to the Harry Potter series, Harper’s convinced she can both understand and speak parseltongue; all she needs is a pet snake (darn you, JK Rowling).
As she sets a large cardboard box on its side, Hadley talks to the gerbils. “I’m making this for you,” she coos while she tapes together toilet paper rolls for a tunnel. She reminds me of how I used to talk to her when she was a baby. She would watch me as I narrated every move I made in a sing-songy voice. “I’m gonna put a fresh diaper on you, sweet Hadley.” Or, “Here come your socks, baby girl.” The one she heard the most was, “Mommy can do this, yes she can!”
Dash watches Hadley as she speaks. I didn’t know gerbils did that, but both of these little red eyed rodents stop what they’re doing when Hadley or Harper come down to the basement and call out their names.
What Hadley built is impressive, and I watch as Hadley and Harper giggle with delight while Yellow and Dash scurry inside their new play park. I’m proud of both my girls. This summer, they did rather extensive research on gerbils: how much they cost, what materials and housing they need, what they eat. Hadley even found a recipe for homemade granola bars that I worried she’d use my cookie sheets to bake them on.
The girls were true nesters and I realized I never had that instinct with either of them when I was pregnant. Thinking about breastfeeding freaked me out, and I used to hold up onesies and think, “How the $#@! do I put a person inside this?” I didn’t choose a color scheme for a nursery, fill up a diaper bag or clip coupons for diapers. I watched Gilmore Girls and ate donuts. I guess I figured I was growing a human – with the help of the Lord and my husband, of course – and that was enough. I’d figure out the rest when the rest arrived.
A few hours later, Hadley is full on screaming and sobbing. Hadley rarely cries, so I’m ready to call 911 as I’m running to find out what’s wrong. That’s when I hear Harper saying, “No, gerbil! Bad gerbil! Come back here!”
Yellow and Dash have escaped.
Jesse runs downstairs, and within minutes scoops them up and returns our pet rodents to their cage.
Hadley is beside herself. “How could I let this happen? How could I be so irresponsible?” It takes us a while to calm her down. All day she walks a bit slower, isn’t as talkative, seems to be reliving this moment behind her deep blue eyes that seem to hold so much. It reminds me of when I first saw her and I thought life is beautiful and startling, and startling beautiful and what do I do now? The rest has come and what I do now?
At night, well after Hadley is supposed to be in bed, she comes downstairs and sits on the couch between Jesse and I.
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” she says and hugs her knees. I put a hand on her head. “I keep reliving it,” she whispers.
“I read all the books,” she tells us. She lists off all the information she’s learned about taking care of gerbils. She even asked the lady at the pet store which immunizations her gerbil needs, and how much they cost. Again I think about how ill prepared I was – and am – to be a mother. I read Young Adult fiction and InStyle magazine while I was pregnant. I suppose it occurred to me to check out some baby books from the library, but they all seemed so boring.
Hadley is now 10 and I know I should probably head to the library and read up on adolescence and tweens and iPhones and how to manage Snapchat. Instead, I pick her up from school and buy her a chocolate milk and we play “Add a Design.” It’s this game I made up where I pull out a piece of paper from my bag, pour out all my pens, and start by putting a small design in the center of the page. I pass the paper to Hadley, and she adds to it. The only rule is you have to start from what the other person finished. In fifteen minutes our marks are all over the page, intersecting and blending and these days I can’t tell which design is mine and which is hers.
Hadley and I have our differences. She is off the charts extraverted, and I am off the charts introverted. She finds safety and confidence in knowing information and solutions, and I find it suffocating and mundane. Where’s the story in the right answer?
She and I sometimes speak a different language, but like that paper we pass back and forth to each other while we play, “Add a Design,” we create off of what the other has laid down: I make swirls off of her straight lines; she draws perfect squares around my fluttery daisies. We always look at each other when we slide the paper across the table. Wordlessly, we say, “What do you think? What will you do next? What’s your move now?” It makes no difference what the next move is because we’re in the game together, and all we want is to keep playing. For ten years, Hadley’s eyes have told me the same thing: life is beautiful and startling and startling beautiful. The rest is here, so let’s go and live it.
I put a hand over Hadley’s while she sits between Jesse and me. I tell her there’s no amount of information that will teach her how to take care of another being perfectly. “You’re just going to have to try and see what happens.”
Hadley and I walk back upstairs and I stand in the center of her room while she climbs into her loft. She hangs a hand and peeks her head over the side and I reach up and hold onto her fingers. “Love doesn’t go away because we make mistakes,” I say. “There’s really not much you can do to make it go away. At least, that’s how it is in this family.” And Dash and Yellow are part of this family. Along with Flick and Ray. A handful of God’s creatures are well loved in the Feyen household.
I walk back downstairs and sit next to Jesse on the couch. We look at each other and let out a collective sigh. He turns on the TV, and we pick up our show where we left off. I lay my head on his shoulder and hold his hand.
Below us, I hear Dash on his gerbil wheel prancing away endlessly in the dark.