On Living With Katie Ka-Boom
[This post is dedicated to Ratty, who suggested this topic at part of the Spirit of America challenge and who has a daughter who reminds me very much of my own. All previous dedicated posts can be found here]
The fates conspire to turn me all melodramatic and melancholy this morning. I was going to write about my daughter today anyhow, but an hour packing away photos last night and a trip to the Bleat yesterday made it seem somehow more apropos that I sit here and bemoan the passing of Nat's innocence years.
I grabbed a handful of photos to stuff into a moving box (I'm not very organized when it comes to pictures, which is why I prefer digital over analog. It's so much easier to move one hundred photos into a little set of folders on your desktop than it is to separate them by hand into real boxes that clutter up an already cluttered up closet). As I moved each pile of pictures, I would glance at one or two, getting quick visuals of the past as I dumped about twenty years worth of memories into a box marked in thick, black Sharpie "You are not allowed to take any more pictures until these are organized."
Looks like I'm in the Nat pile. Well, at least my mountains are organized, sort of. There she is on the first day of nursery school, crying. And there she is on Santa's lap, crying. And there she is with her best friend and hey, she's laughing!
And that's Nat in a nutshell. She's either hysterical crying or hysterical laughing. My child of extremes. When she was four, and had been tested and re-tested for a million different learning disabilities, one of the specialists told me that Nat has no middle ground, no even keel. She'll either cry as if she had been stabbed in the heart or laugh as if the whole world had told her a joke. When she got mad, it would be a rage filled anger. When she became happy, it would be a heart-bursting happiness. And during those down times when none of those emotions seemed appropriate, she would have what the specialist called a flat affect on her face. Nothing. Blank. Looking at her during those times was like looking at an unplugged television.
Ten years later, we don't see the flat affect as much, but Nat still knows how to completely turn off. And the big difference is, she can do it at will now, and she pushes that on/off button with seeming delight. Look, ma! I can turn you off! I can almost hear the click as her eyes glaze over and that look of emptiness comes over her. So I'll walk away, not wanting to waste my time trying to reach someone who is the equivalent of a thousand miles away.
When she was younger, she wouldn't even notice if I walked away, that's how far inside herself she would go. Now, if I ignore her - even though it seems to be that she wants to be ignored - the histrionics begin. I never listen to her, I never hear her, I never talk to her. Tears, sobbing, the world is ending and I'm the one killing it and oh, how her life is miserable and I don't understand her, in fact, no one understands her and she's just going to run away to Canada and start an ice farm.
Yes, I remember being a teenager and of course, I did the same thing. And when I was done making my mother feel like an utter failure at parenting, I would slam my door, put on the stereo and start composing morbid, depressing poetry. Which is pretty much what Nat does. I believe it's a requisite for being a teenager.
Back to the photos. I try to reconcile the charming, playful girl in the pictures with the girl who is, at this moment when I'm taken back to the day when she first walked and I caught her in a pose of half standing, half falling and there's the tv in the background and it's showing the first night vision scenes from the first Gulf War, she is screaming at her brother, calling him vile names because he dared to look at her and I think - my daughter has already seen two wars.
That's not a statement on the world or anything like that, it's a statement about time. The first Gulf War seems like ancient history, so does that make my daughter's childhood ancient history? It hits me then how much she has grown since that first step that coincided with the first bomb. Now there's a thing to remember, eh?
I put the photos away and I conduct a very hush-hush surveillance. I watch my daughter carefully as she moves swiftly from the kitchen to the bedroom. Back and forth. Send an instant message to someone, run into the bedroom, shriek about American Idol, run back to the computer, type with one hand while she balances the phone with the other, playing social director for one group of friends. She makes a plan, hits the three-way-calling button which I've told her not to use without permission (and which I mentally note that she owes me another fifty cents for), slams the keyboard drawer in, runs back into her room to hit record after the commercial break ends, all the while crying into the phone that no one understands her and I see the mental breakdown coming, it happens every week when she tries to juggle two separate but very unequal groups of friends and it's the Honor Society v. The Punks all over again. I secretly root for the Honor Society to win this week, not because the punks are bad kids, they are actually really good kids, but for some reason, I have ended up designated driver for that crowd.
It's obvious the plans will not be finalized this evening. Nat does not have time for this. She has to watch the end of American Idol and she still has not spent her allotted fifteen minutes she gets each evening to bitch at me for life in general and I just know tonight it will be about her impending orthodontic work, money for the Blink 182-concert, why I won't let her see R-rated movies and how mean and strict I am for not letting her paint her bedroom in the new house ten shades of black.
Her emotions change from second to second. I keep a scorecard in my head and tonight it's despair in a knock out over sullen anger. Oh, she's not mad that I am making her take the $62 for the concert out of her bank account; no, she's upset that her mother would actually make her pay for something herself! And she's not flailing the flying fists of rage over the black paint. No, tonight she turns on the waterworks and claims that I never let her do anything she wants. Ever. Never. Ever. Ever.
The waterworks of puberty are like no other. Once a girl is consumed by the PMS monster, tears no longer trickle. They pour. And each tear is accompanied by a choking sob and an appropriate phrase such as, you....(sob)....don't....(sob)...love...(sob)....me! Niagra Falls has nothing on a teenage girl's tear ducts.
I can see the conversation will go nowhere this time; sometimes anger is easier to deal with than the crying. I'm just about to get up off the couch, thus signifying that I have ended the discussion, when she beats me to it by shutting down. There it is, the flat affect, the distant eyes. She has won.
She retreats to her room and I resume with the photos. There she is at seven, at eight, at ten. She's got a great smile. There's one of her with her fifth grade teacher, who pretended she was at a book signing and Nat was autographing a copy of her latest book for the teacher. This teacher - the best thing that ever happened to my daughter - swears to this day that Natalie will be a famous author some day. I believe her.
Nat has an amazing imagination. Unfortunately, she sometimes cannot discern between imaginary and real, as when she thinks that I will just randomly buy her a laptop one day, or that I will take in her friend because he doesn't like his father or that we're going to get seven Dalmatians when we move into the new house.
Nat lives in Natville, population one. It's her world and she is the most important thing in it. As such, we should all revolve our lives, schedules and bank accounts around her.
She is Katie Ka-boom , sweet and beautiful one minute and an explosion of hormonal imbalance the next.
She's manipulative and devious, but sometimes it's a pleasure to watch those traits in action when she's giving her younger brother some deserved comeuppance.
Like many girls her age, Nat is a commpendium of emotions, personalities and quirks. Sometimes her moods change so quickly that even she is confused as to what mode she is supposed to be in.
The best thing I can say about Nat - and this is something I'm proud to say, not a cast-off compliment - is that she is firmly her own person. She has her convictions and, by god, no one will break her away from those convictions. I don't ever worry that she will start smoking or drinking because she is so adamant against those things that she'll probably end up on one of those truth.com commercials one day. If you ask her to go against her beliefs, she'll ditch you like yesterday's garbage. In her mind, no one she even dare suggest you betray your own values. She's a loyal, trusting person to have as a friend, but to be her enemy is to stand in the path of a hurricane. She's a deep thinker, a gifted writer, an improv comedian, and has, underneath that layer of blackened crust, a good heart.
I don't lay awake worrying about why she hates me; I know she doesn't really hate me. I don't worry that she turned out to be a rotten kid because she's really not. At all. I do think about what it was like when I was a teenager and I remember how hard it was to be thirteen, fourteen, even fifteen. I remember struggling to figure out who I was or who I wanted to be. So I empathize with her. It's just that the empathizing reaches a saturation point that directly correlates to the pitch and length of her whine.
I drive Nat to school every day, even though she has a bus available to her. It's right on my way and gives us about six minutes of just us. Six minutes may not seem like a lot, but I take what I can get. In that short drive she manages to tell me everything that's on her mind. She's smiling as she confides in me. She laughs. We're friends. And when I drop her off in front of the school, I get a kiss and hug and an I love you.
It's those six minutes and a box full of photos that make every last whine worth listening to.