When my daughter was 17, she smashed her fist through her dad’s car window in a fit of anger. The Vermont state trooper, investigating, asked me why she did it.
My answer had three parts. “Her dad abandoned her. She’s a teenager. She’s mad.”
The trooper told me he got it; he didn’t press charges.
I didn’t get it. How did I get from my cloth-diapering, Waldorf homeschooling, churning butter, Earth Mama days to watching the back of my daughters’ father as he walked out, and then informed me he wasn’t going to provide financial support to the children?
My older daughter’s relationship with her father began to unravel when she was 13, and first enrolled in public school. In retrospect, my child’s father, himself from a sheltered background, didn’t understand middle school with standardized tests and MacBooks and a complicated weave of relationships, and her whole-hearted entry into this foreign society must have shaken the pinions of his narrow world. A first child raised on a rural Vermont homestead, Molly’s childhood was enmeshed in what might have appeared an idyllic family maple sugaring business, both making the sweet stuff and selling it every Sunday at a large farmers market. A Waldorf child, she had been raised with handmade dolls and beeswax crayons.
At 13, Molly wanted an iPod, the internet, freedom not merely to run in the woods but also to consider that a microwave might be the greatest invention in the planet’s history. She wanted space to declare herself an atheist, whatever that may have meant.
In the odd clarity of hindsight, I can now see my husband’s thinking beginning to loosen like Arctic ice cracking in a break-up, its diminishing pieces drifting apart in an unending sea. Novelists know human beings are enormously complex, and our stories hold myriad pieces. As depression and anxiety gained the upper hand in his personality, anger exploded, often violently, and those rampaging emotions obliterated the space where love for his children should have dominated.
How could my long-limbed smart child not be angry? The injustice of her life – her parents’ divorce, her father’s disappearance – raged mightily. No one heads into a divorce with pleasure, and children, who get no vote, generally stand the least to gain. Divorce destroys any hope of providing the inherent cosmic rightness of two parents folded around a child. How could a teenager begin to accept that human injustice is ubiquitous?
When I saw her bloodied knuckle, and the tendon poking out from her torn flesh, pure and white as the stars, I told my oldest daughter, “I can’t believe you did that.” Part of my anguish was wholly proprietary: how could you damage this lovely body I’ve nurtured all these years?
On the way to the ER, she asked, “What am I going to tell them?”
Three adults, in three different rooms, asked my daughter to relay the story of her bloodied hand.
“How’s that working out for you?” one male nurse asked.
“Not so great.”
In the small town ER, we waited and waited. I knitted a black wool hat for my brother. We stared out the window at the gray parking lot. At one place in those hours, I told my daughter I loved her, and that the reason I cautioned her to gather the reins of her anger – no matter how justified anger at her tilted universe might be – was that her anger would slingshot back and hurt her. I pointed to her knuckle: case in point.
I asked, “Do you understand what I mean?”
Her finger had been painfully shot up with Lidocaine. Lying on a white-sheeted hospital bed, she exuded the mixed-up nebulousness of adolescence, that combination of petulant childishness and gorgeous young womanhood with her long hard-muscled runner’s legs and sparkly spaghetti-strap tank top. Her mouth twisted miserably at her Sunday gone awry. With her gaze directly on me, she answered reluctantly. “Yes.”
That one word: yes.
We left the ER with her middle finger bandaged in lime green.
For a week, I forbid my high school senior to drive her car and forced her to endure the humiliation of the elementary school bus. Mary Oliver has a line that reappears in her poetry in one variation after another, over and over: And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your own life.
Child of my womb, my heart, my first-born. For so many years, living on a back road in rural Vermont, in a raggedly bereft marriage, my world had been simply this child and me, her small, plump hand in my gnawed-nail one. I nursed this child into her toddler years. Although she’s long surpassed the time when I might encircle even an ankle with maternal claim, I consider this girl my own.
And yet: I did what I never would have considered possible when this daughter was a little one in my arms. I drew that metaphorical line and stepped back. I forced her – and I forced myself – to be master of her own life. To do otherwise, to insert my own messy life between this child and her father, to lay burdensome guilt on my shoulders (responsible as I might be) would be to rob my daughter of commandeering her own dearly precious life.
My brewmaster brother’s life theory comes down to free will and responsibility, intertwined. Life’s a murky, uncertain, far more torturous expedition than I ever envisioned in my own adolescence. When I was a teenager, justice and injustice wore flowing capes of white and black, easily identified. Now in my 40s, I’ve eaten my own share of heartbreak, but even in the misery of my broken marriage, I determined not to allow despair to capture my heart; I believed then – as I do yet today – that, tempered in the human kiln of experience – of love and joy, desolation and fear – our hearts may widen in ways we never imagined or anticipated, gaining breath and richness, and that passing through suffering yields a deeper capacity for compassion and love.
Just as my child’s body is no longer my territory, nor is her soul, if it ever was. To hand over the reins of free will to my daughter, I knew I also had to relinquish the scarier one of responsibility, too. I made her own up to that damaged hand. I stepped back and didn’t shield her from that suffering.