The first time it’s mentioned on The Killing that Detective Sarah Linden almost lost custody of her son once before was last night, on Mother’s Day. It’s not that easy to lose custody of a child, especially if you’re white and middle class, so whatever she had done “before” to get to that point must have been pretty hazardous. But it was one line, whispered in a hurry, just before the scene changed. Maybe it’s just me, but I wanted more info. Lose custody to whom, exactly? The non-existent father figure, or the state of Washington? Because they’re different. One happens far more privately than the other.
Some of this bears a breakdown: Linden has been so busy with this case that she can’t find the time to get married, and keeps canceling plans to move herself and her thirteen year-old son to California where her fiance waits for them. The son’s not that interested in moving, but goes along with it, mostly, I assume, because that’s what you do when you have one parent. There’s talk of some other case that Linden became fixated on in the past, talk that she can’t let this one affect her the way the last one did. At one point, she tells her son that if they miss the next flight she will pay him 50 million dollars. In this past episode, they miss their flight again and as they leave the airport he calls back to her, “You owe me fifty million dollars.”
Never mind that her fiance won’t answer the phone when she calls because she’s put him off so many times. Never mind the fact that they’ve given up their apartment in preparation to move and they seem to be camping out on a family friend’s boat. All very convenient. We apparently don’t need some silly lover’s quarrel; nor do we need to get bogged down in the very real problem of where single parents and their children live. Forget all that. What bugs me (and yes, I know it’s fiction), is how careless the writers have made her about her son. Who makes a kid move a thousand miles away from the only place he knows and then delays it over and over again? And then jokes about it? And how does she make up for it? She drops him off at a party (It’s a party he’s been talking about since the show opened, but she still only drops him off.). Then she shows him how to fire a gun so he can play paintball with his friends without being bullied. I just don’t know how I feel about this.
In some ways, Sarah Linden is–as most reviews tell us–one of the most realistic women on television. She’s a harried mom trying to make a half-decent life for both her and her son. Those are very separate goals that need to dovetail for a few more years until he leaves the nest. I was in my late 20′s before I realized that my mom had been a person with a life while she was raising me. One day it just hit me that she must have had things going on in her head that had nothing to do with which paper dolls I picked out at the pharmacy. Worries, daydreams, furies. Burdens. She spent a lot of time taking care of her own mother; eventually, she went back to working as a nurse. At some point, she had to do the parenting bit by herself, and frankly, it proved to be too much for her. Thirty years later, she’s still apologizing to me.
My dad struggled, too, mind you, when he was left alone with me. Like the time he didn’t notice I had been skipping school for three weeks in the fourth grade. He must have figured I ran on auto-pilot and assumed I was walking to the bus every morning until he got a call at work asking how I was feeling. He was lucky once my stepmother came on the scene that there was someone else to keep an eye on me.
The fact is, raising kids is harder than TV can ever portray, and so is life–with or without them. I’m not sure that adding so many variables to Sarah Linden’s life makes sense. Her life might have been just as complicated without a plan to move two states to the south (and to Sonoma, no less) or getting married, but we need a love interest, don’t we? Why can’t the thing that threatens her tenuous hold on her career, her child and her personal life just be…the challenge of having a career, and a child and a personal life? (Note: This whole argument wouldn’t even be possible without the following assumptions in place: that she lives in a safe neighborhood, that her kid goes to a decent school, that she and her son are reasonably healthy both physically and emotionally and that she’s not up to her eyeballs in debt of some kind. These are huge assumptions.). When I was the age her kid is, I was flunking seventh grade English because I refused to read one more damn book about people by themselves (The Old Man and The Sea, The Outsiders, The Red Pony. Great books, wrong topics.). Believe me, my parents had plenty to do without ever leaving the neighborhood the day my English teacher suggested that maybe I couldn’t read.
I think what I’m saying is I’m sick of the steely female detective with intimacy issues. It’s an old story, a guy’s story, plastered on to a woman. It’s a fantasy that she never has to feed this kid, or wonder where he is, or how his grades are. Or that it’s somehow okay that she never calls to tell anyone that she’ll be late because she’s kicking in doors and being held by the FBI. It’s a daydream to think there’s a nice, seemingly stable guy off stage waiting for her, who’s never once been asked to watch her son or pitch in on a less-than-fun task. A real single mom who’s that busy would be calling in every person she could think of to help her out, not just one no-nonsense woman with a boat. Or she wouldn’t, because she didn’t have help, and then a social service agency would get involved.
I guess my question is, why can’t her real problems be considered dramatic enough? Male detectives don’t need pretty women waiting in Sonoma. In fact, half the time they don’t even need private lives. And when they do have private lives, they’re usually managed by a wife (Or an ex-wife. Even easier, but more expensive and more fodder for jokes about women and money.). Also, now that she’s missed yet another flight to her new life, we’re watching Linden grovel to the boyfriend by voicemail. Please. My greatest wish for this show is to see Linden lose it. Really come unglued. Scream, throw something, tell someone off, take off in a furious sprint, or, God forbid, curl up in a ball and cry. Just once. Now that would be real.
I don’t like to think of myself as someone who passes down little bits of wisdom from a preschooler, but sometimes you never know where you might wind up. Two days in a row, my son had epic tantrums after we left daycare. He’s been unpredictable ever since his nursery school let out for the holidays, but these were off the charts. In a brief moment of calm the other day, I asked him why he was getting so angry–was it something that happened at daycare?
“No,” he said, “I just didn’t want to leave.”
“But you seemed so happy to go.”
“I was happy to see you, but I didn’t want to stop playing.”
So I thought about that, after we weathered yet another tantrum that night at bedtime, and I thought about how moving from one thing to another is always the trigger for him: Leaving for school, sitting down to dinner, getting out of the bathtub. You want to see a meltdown (no, I mean a meltdown–whatever you’re thinking, double that and break something), change the plan too quickly. We do all the stuff you’re supposed to do–the ten-minute warnings, telling him the schedule ahead of time, whatever, and still, some days? Forget it, Charlie.
The other night as I was falling asleep, though, I had an idea–the kid wasn’t saying goodbye properly. How can he move to the next thing if he hasn’t let go of what came before? So I decided we were going to say goodbye to everything. Yesterday, we said good bye to the car as we headed off to daycare; when I picked him up at the end of the day–after I hugged him–I made him go back and say goodbye to the kids he was playing with, not just shout over his shoulder. He said goodbye to dinner, to the water in the tub, to the day, everything. It seems remedial, like something he should have learned at age two, but maybe he didn’t. So, we’ll teach it again; we’ll teach it until he learns it, like multiplication tables. I’ll point out that yesterday we didn’t have one single struggle. (This could be rendered useless in a few hours, but just go with it for now.)
On this last day of a year I believe I’d like to kick to the curb and never look back at again, I’m going to take my own advice. On The Night of Two Tantrums I cleaned out my closet. Yesterday morning I either deleted or moved 3,000 emails from my work inbox until it was empty. Goodbye, ugly sweaters. Goodbye, messages that say no more than “Thanks!” or “See you then!” Hello, space. Oh, hi, clarity.
There’s a mild panic inherent with that–that fear of getting rid of the wrong thing, the fear of being left with nothing. That’s a faint but serious fear, and it’s probably one I’ve chosen not to confront fully. I’m pretty sure I’m not that good at saying goodbye. If I think about it, I’m probably someone who just lurches from thing to another and tries not to examine the potentially painful and confusing subtleties of “I was happy to see you, but I didn’t want to stop playing.” Yeah, that’s probably right. There’s evidence of my not quite getting the hang of that.
Maybe my son and I could try to learn that together, the way my dad taught himself to dive by watching my swimming lessons when I was a kid. It took some major humility for a 38 year-old man to kneel at the edge of a pool with a bunch of seven year-olds, but he did it, and he learned. So will I, then. I’ll dive, too.
A lot changed in the last year. A whole lot of ugly realities forced themselves into this house, but a lot of great things happened, too. Sometimes that was a result of the same event; sometimes the two were blessedly separate. I’m looking forward to seeing 2010 go, and while I have no real plans for the year that starts tomorrow, I’m just about ready for it. I just need to make sure I take the time to say goodbye to the one I’m leaving behind.
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Yesterday on the way to his preschool, my son noticed a small collection of headstones in a churchyard in town. He asked questions. I gave answers. A few minutes later, we got out of the car, I kissed him goodbye, and went on my way. Four hours later, I picked him up, and after racing him through the parking lot three times (we need to do this), he got in the car and said, “Mommy, tell me a story about you and me in a graveyard with a vampire.”
The story wasn’t that good; I’m tired of vampire stories. I’ve been telling them for a few weeks now. Dracula has become a toothless (literally), slightly whiny character who rescues us from werewolves.
Then he said to me, “Mommy, are there any big graveyards? Really big ones?” My first thought was the one off The Garden State Parkway, the one that stretches for as far as the eye can see on both sides, but that would take too long to get to. A friend suggested I take him to North Arlington, the town known for having more dead residents than live ones. As an added incentive, he threw in the fact that we could drive by landfills and see the Manhattan skyline (and the Meadowlands Commission, which, Meadowlands jokes aside, is supposed to be cool, nature-wise). Sadly, that was also too far away, considering the time.
So we found another one closer to home. Yes, we found another cemetery to visit. In fact, he was asleep when we first arrived so I drove through and then out again. Then we went back after he woke up. Then we drove around one more time to “measure it.” The landscapers must have thought I was casing the joint.
I have to say if I’m going to “review” the cemetery, it didn’t really measure up for me. The headstones were perfectly aligned in long even rows, almost all the stones were the same size and color. It had no character, no history. I was a little disappointed, but cemeteries aren’t there for my entertainment. It worked for the four year-old with me. He asked me what the stones said, and where the people were and how they got under there. And were we standing on them right now? Uh, kind of. The cemetery was Catholic, so he took plenty of opportunities to ask about “Jesus’ mom,” but was surprisingly lacking in curiosity about Jesus hanging from a cross. When we got home, he immediately constructed a cemetery out of blocks while singing a song about his toy knight.
In case anyone’s wondering, the evening unfolded in an otherwise conventional fashion.
One day, when my son was a toddler, my husband took the day off and went to the U.N. He loves the U.N. and somehow decided this would be a satisfying diversion from the rigors of parenthood. (He’s kind of a wonk that way. I say this with love and admiration. Some of the best jokes in our house happen while we’re watching the news.) He brought home a book. He smiled with the stereotypical pride of a dad who buys his kid his first baseball glove as he showed me a copy of For Every Child A Better World, illustrated by Jim Henson.
Not so fast. Yes, there are the trademark Henson adorable bulbous blue and green people, but on every other page they are sad, bandaged, their hungry bellies distended as the smoke from distant missiles rises up around them. I looked at my husband–my dear, sweet, well-intended husband–and tried not to wince. “Too much?” “Maybe. For now. But maybe not. He probably won’t even understand it.” I called it The U.N. Book of Despair.
Look, I have no problem with my kid learning that he’s damn lucky not to have been born in a war zone. It just seemed so soon to teach him. (As I would learn in later years, he couldn’t care less what other kids lack when I’m trying to urge him to eat peas or telling him he can’t have another Matchbox car.)
He loved it, naturally. Last night, three years after getting the book, he looked at it as he fell asleep. And it’s a good book, for its subject matter. It’s just, as one friend of mine might say while rolling her eyes, so predictable. Of course we would give him this book, in addition to all the books about aliens and vampires and ghosts. (The kid has regular books, too, mind you. Dr. Seuss and Beatrix Potter and books about kooky heroic penguins and whatnot).
In part, I credit my parents, who would be the first to tell me I was twisted. Let’s start off with the most obvious influence: Catholicism. Every Sunday in those formative years I sat and stared at a crucifix. The man up there was dead. Tortured. Then, they tell me, in those moments I listened, he came back. Wow, my little brain said. That’s really something. I wasn’t scared, really; I’d call it intrigued. Then, of course, we Catholics lay out our dead and make them up so we can say goodbye. We get right up next to them; sometimes we even kiss them. It’s frankly creepy, even to me. But there was no complaining about it. You walked up there, knelt down next to the casket and prayed. My legs always felt like they were spring-loaded I was so desperate to get away.
Then there were the cemeteries. When I was little, my parents would take me on vacation to Cape Cod and in the mornings my dad would let my mom sleep and take me out for a doughnut. We’d walk around whatever little town we were in and inevitably wind up in an old cemetery reading headstones. It was fun, seeing how old people were when they died, performing little history projects. We did it well into my adulthood. And one of the funniest days I’ve ever had with my mother was the day we looked for over an hour for her grandparents’ grave with only the knowledge that it was “behind a shrub”. Her grandparents are buried in a Catholic cemetery in the predominantly Irish neighborhood where she grew up in Boston. Take a minute and imagine the size of that cemetery–and how many shrubs there are.
All this leads (not so smoothly) into what I’d call my parents’ mild boundary issues. Some were unavoidable. My mother’s aunt was in a nursing home when I was little and she usually had to bring me with her when she went to visit because there was no one to watch me. Either that, or my mother didn’t think it mattered if I came along (more likely). Either way, Aunt Dot was always in one of those chairs with the straps, and sometimes we had to wait a while before seeing her because she had tried to make her escape by scooting under the strap and was making a concerted effort to throw the chair out the window. Once they’d subdued her, we were welcome to visit.
My parents also didn’t always stop themselves before they told stories a kid didn’t need to hear, stories I won’t tell here, but my mother and her sister have some real doozies about their aunts that, horrifying as they seem, are always told to raucous laughter. I’ll give you another example. Whenever my dad and I were in the car together when I was a kid, he’d quiz me, giving me spelling words or math problems. One day when I was about six, he decided to challenge me with a word that probably loomed large in our collective lives: “Spell…psychiatrist.”
All this kind of sets a kid up not to fear the worst, I suppose. In my case, maybe it set me up to seek out the worst, I don’t know. My parents’ dark sides–the ones they didn’t always connect to mine–was one of the things I appreciated most about them, possible psychic damage notwithstanding. In many ways, they taught me not to be afraid. It’s tricky, though, as an adult, deciding what my kid should be exposed to and trying to figure out where to draw the line. I tried for a while to be the kind of parent who shielded my kid from the world’s creepiness, but that’s not me, clearly. Maybe someday he’ll be driving his own kids somewhere and decide to play a spelling game. “Spell…psychiatrist,” he’ll say, and he’ll think of me and roll his eyes.