A triangle is a sharp looking thing. It looks like it hurts, simply by virtue of being pointy. If you fell on a triangle, especially that top point, you would feel it. It might stick right through you, if you fell hard enough. My family is a triangle. I am that super-sticky-outy top point. My daughters are the points on the base.
I wish we were a square, a nice balanced square with two right angles at the top and two at the bottom. I wish for that every day. We started out that way. That’s how we planned it, their dad and I. But, like so much of life, what we planned wasn’t exactly what we got. And so this family is a triangle.
It’s hard being that top point, sticking out where you’re not always wanted and you don’t much want to be. It’s by no means the hardest thing in the world, but it’s lonely and a little tiring. The points at the base need so much. That top point keeps them connected, pulls them up, gives them shape. The top point has a lot of responsibility. Responsibility that should be shared in a square.
When you’re the top of the triangle, you always have to be on your game. You’re all the base has. There’s no time to be sick, to be sad, to be introspective, to have an off day. Without that other corner to balance your shape, it’s all up to you.
The fall after my husband Jeff died, I wasn’t yet accustomed to being the top of the triangle. I thought that surely I could find a way to make us a square again. I was sick, all the time, with everything you can think of. The godawfulest bugs ever. Grief and stress and trauma and exhaustion and the constant influx of information I didn’t want and couldn’t possibly process wore my immune system to shreds. I have a very clear memory of being in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet and bending over the trash can at the same time. I had called my aunt less than an hour before, letting her know that I was going to be very, very sick and no way in hell could I take care of an infant and a toddler, and could she please, please help AGAIN? NOW. RIGHT NOW. It’s 60 minutes from her door to mine, and I knew she left her house as soon as she found her shoes and her keys. I managed a glance at my watch in between retching and calculated – if I die right here on the toilet, right now, which I just might do, she should only be 15 minutes away. Sarah is strapped in her bouncy and Shelby is occupied with Dora – if I can hang on another five minutes, surely they will survive the other 10 until she gets here. Puked again. Is the door unlocked? God, please let the door be unlocked because I cannot get downstairs unless I crawl and drag this trash can with me, and a two-year-old can’t unlock a deadbolt.
It was unlocked, and that day (and many others) my aunt was the fourth corner to our square. And I was grateful, because she didn’t have to be. It wasn’t her job. The person whose job it was, wasn’t there to do it. Ever. Again.
That’s what it’s like to be the top of the triangle. However you get there, whether your fourth corner died or left or can’t be bothered, the top of the triangle is a scary place to be.
Now my base points are older. I can throw up if I have to, although it worries them and they hover over me and sometimes you just want to hurl in solitude. I’ve gotten used to being the top of the triangle. I’ve gotten used to being mommy and daddy, to earning the income and balancing the budget, to mowing the yard and cooking dinner and packing lunches and running the grill and the household. To changing the filter and remembering to check the oil and make the 150,000-mile service appointment and paying someone else to do the things I just can’t. To being the only one at the school’s family dance and the recitals and the competitions, to knowing that every decision is mine and however it turns out, I will have no one to blame but myself. I really hate that part. I’m the good cop and the bad cop, the kisser of booboos and the spanker of butts. When I go to bed at night, I still sleep on the left; sometimes I wake to find a small snoozing body next to me, but usually these days it’s just the dog. Instead of talking to someone at bedtime, I journal or talk to God; I share my worries and fears and yammer through decision-making and wish someone would talk back. But it’s just me. I know God is listening, and sometimes I think he answers, but I’m never quite sure. It would be nice if I could just hear advice in Morgan Freeman’s voice.
I go places and I see squares. I see parents who, whether they share anything else or not, at least share a love for their children. There are two people who put the small beings they made together above everything else, two people to share the joy and the fear and the worry and the pride. I am jealous. I know I shouldn’t be, because I see facades and I project a made-up story onto someone else’s reality. But I’m still jealous.
We didn’t get to be a square very long. Just a little over three months. I don’t really know any other way to parent, any other way to be, than that pointy top of the triangle. Over the years it’s made me sharp and pointy too, I think. Defensive and resentful and guilty, always guilty, because I’ve been given so much and most of the time I appreciate it so very little.
But oh, what I would give to be a square family. For my daughters to be part of a square, or a quadrangle or even an octagon – any shape that doesn’t come to a sharp point at the top. Any shape that means someone else loves them as much as I do.
Someday. Maybe someday we can be balanced. In the meantime, I am grateful for the people who fill in that fourth corner so I can puke in peace.
Amy Clay is the widowed mom of two tween daughters. A writer for more than 20 years (and a mom for 12), Amy lives in Kentucky. She loves monograms, the Derby, the Wildcats, and all things southern. You can read about life in her all-girl household on her blog, “Confessions of a Fairly Merry Widow,” at aclay2005.wordpress.com.