I had a hard time getting away last weekend. For the last three months, I’d been looking forward to my ten-year law-school reunion. I’d lost 18 pounds, bought a new outfit, got a new hairstyle, and arranged to stay with my best friend from law school and her husband. Getting out of my house Saturday afternoon to drive to L.A. was another matter.
All day Friday, in between dropping Rebecca at school and Angela at preschool and having the oil in my car changed and helping out in Rebecca’s classroom for her teacher’s birthday party and picking Rebecca and Angela up and driving them home, I did laundry. During the week, Jack and I and our four children had managed to wear every piece of clothing in the house. By Friday night, I had a stack of clean clothes several feet high to fold and put away. Standing between the family room couch and coffee table, I turned Johnny’s shirts into little squares and sorted 57 socks while Jay Leno told jokes and Kevin Eubanks laughed. When Jack and I went up to bed after midnight, we each carried an overflowing laundry basket.
Saturday morning, I put all the clean clothes away. I grocery shopped so Jack would have something to feed the kids while I was gone. I packed my overnight bag and cleared all the toys and extra shoes and kids’ sweaters out of my car. After I fixed tuna sandwiches for the kids’ lunch, waited while they ate, and straightened up the kitchen, I carried my stuff out to the car. Rebecca followed me. “Don’t go, Mommy,” she whimpered. “I’ll miss you.”
“Sweetie,” I put my arm around her shoulders, “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. It won’t be that long.” Rebecca worked up a few tears.
I kneeled down beside her. “Besides,” I said, “you’re going over to Billy’s house for dinner tonight. You’re going to Mass with Daddy tomorrow morning. You’ll be so busy, you won’t even miss me.”
I gave hugs and kisses all around. Johnny toddled over to Jack, who sat on the garage floor removing a flat tire from Rebecca’s bike. “Da-da,” Johnny told me as he opened and closed his hand in his version of a wave. “Da-da.”
In Johnny-speak, “da-da” means “hello,” “good-bye,” and “Daddy.”
“Bye-bye, Johnny,” I waved back. I eased the van out of the garage. The kids followed me out into the cul-de-sac. “Bye, Mommy,” they called.
I rolled down the window and waved some more. “Bye. Be good for Daddy.”
When I turned the corner, they were still waving. I drove through the little streets of our neighborhood, got on the freeway, and headed to L.A. I turned the radio up loud. I listened to all the “oldies” —- songs I listened to in high school and college and law school. I thought a lot about how my life had changed in the last ten years.
Unlike a lot of my classmates, I don’t practice law anymore. I stay at home with my kids. On a good day, I’m happy about my decisions. I wouldn’t trade Johnny’s smiles and Rebecca’s first word and Angela and Lucy’s make-believe games for the billable-hour grind most lawyers endure. On a bad day, I feel like a drudge, an overeducated servant girl. I look back on the last seven years of my life as a long walk down a narrow corridor. With the birth of each child, a door slammed shut. And on those days when the girls are bickering and Johnny won’t be consoled and everybody wants something from me at the same time, I find myself staring at a blank wall with my arms elbow-deep in dishwater. The only way out that I can see is a steep staircase that takes 18 years to climb.
At the reunion, I saw a lot of people I hadn’t thought of in ten years. When I told people that I had four children, they reacted the way you might if someone told you they’d had a sex-change operation. Their eyes grew wide, mouths dropped open. “Four? You have four children?”
“Mm-hmm,” I answered with a smile.
Their eyes scanned down to my feet and back to my face. “You look so good,” they shook their heads.
“Yes,” I thought to myself, “I still comb my hair and get dressed up occasionally.”
“Wow,” one woman who is now a partner at a national law firm told me. “I admire you so much. I’m completely exhausted after a weekend with my daughter. I can’t imagine how you stay home with four. And you write a column.” By the end of the evening, I felt like the most successful person in the room.
On the drive home the next day, my hallway didn’t seem so narrow. A window had opened up over the sink. When I walked into the house, I could hear the low chatter of a baseball game on the TV. Jack sat on the couch in the family room with Johnny asleep in his arms. Rebecca and Angela played house in the office. Lucy got up from where she snuggled beside Jack and wrapped her skinny arms around my neck. “Hi, Mommy,” she whispered in my ear. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“So am I, Lucy.”