Andrea hadn’t left the house in several weeks. My children hadn’t seen the front yard in nearly the same amount of time. I walked into the basement to find them sitting in an odd half-circle in the family room.
Lydia was lying on her back in the armpit of a couch. She was kicking a blanket into the air and then crawling to get out of the way before it came down on her head. As she disappeared beneath it, legs sticking out in odd directions, she transformed into a coughing mound that resembled a hacking lump of cold brown gravy piled atop a pair of chopsticks.
Gideon was quietly tangled up on the other end of the couch. He was wearing Paw Patrol pajamas which he had outgrown two summers ago. He was playing Minecraft on a tablet. It was held up to his nose, and he was holding it with both hands and both feet. His pajama pants stopped at his knees so that his arms and legs looked like the boney white appendages of an overturned beetle. He looked up at me and smiled a straight-lipped smile and then turned back to his tablet, smearing his nose across it on the way. He lifted it to the top of his head with all four limbs and used it to scratch his scalp before bringing it back down in front of his nose.
Clara was hunched over my computer desk. She was stirring a cup of tea in front of her with both hands as if it were a cauldron. she would likely never drink more than a few sips before it was too cold and poured down the sink. At the bottom, I would find an inch of honey, jam, lemon peel, eyes of a red-capped newt, the heart of a one-year-old cedar tree. All of it wasted on her experimentation which would someday explode and turn our house into a large toadstool. She was wearing headphones to save the family from having to listen to the video she was watching. On the screen, a young woman with purple hair was lying on the floor in a guinea pig pen while three fuzzy potatoes flopped nearby nibbling massive sheets of lettuce.
“Haven’t you watched that one already?” I asked.
She tore the headphones off of one ear and looked at me quizzically. “What?”
“Nevermind,” I said with a sigh.
“She’s feeding them lettuce!” she said, much too loudly.
“Yes, I see. She’s feeding them lettuce.”
She giggled and went back to her video.
Andrea smiled up from the corner of a different couch where she was sitting looking at her phone. Then she leaned to the side and doubled over into one of her usual coughing fits. She coughed more than she talked these days.
We were developing a new language. I would ask a question about where the glass mixing bowl was. And she would cough and wave her hand in the air and move her eyebrows around in a certain way. And then I would say, “Oh, but I looked there already.” And she would cough again, and move her other eyebrow which meant she was asking a question of her own. And I would say, “Yes, there’s nothing in there either. Could it be in the garage for some reason?” and she would hack and groan and roll her head back to cough up at the ceiling. And then I would say, “I know, right? But I’ll look anyway.” And sure enough, the mixing bowl would be sitting next to the bicycles for some reason. This was now how my wife and I communicated.
I looked around at the room and the little piles of humans that lived in the house squirming and coughing like the four winds of the Earth. This all felt far too familiar. Was this not the same scene as yesterday? And that was the same as the day before. And that was the same as the day before. And so on. And so on. On into eternity. Had we been here forever? Had God spoken us into existence here in this room? Would things continue on this way until the end of time when God returned to find us all in exactly the same place he had left us, still coughing, still restless under our blankets, still observing the world through small windows?
At this thought, I crossed the room and pulled open the curtains letting in a blast of light that sent the three smallest in the room shrieking under blankets and behind the couch.
“Get dressed!” I said, with all the confidence I could muster. “We are going to go out.”
But the groan of rebellion rippled around the room and washed against me like foam on the banks of a murky pond. And the groaning wave kept spiraling around the room, passed from child to child like a wet sock, every time getting wetter and more slime-covered until I felt like I was being slapped in the face with it and I finally gave up. The dreadful amount of energy that would be needed to extract my children from their blankets and from their pajamas and then the massive sense of will required to pry them into real clothing, it would never be worth the reward of getting to drive around for 30 minutes with them complaining and poking at each other the whole time in the backseat.
I held up my hands in surrender. “Okay. Whatever. Don’t come outside and experience the real world with me. Your mom and I will just go without you.” Andrea coughed in joyous agreement. “We’ll be back in about an hour.
“My wife’s face brightened and she scampered upstairs to get ready.
We rarely leave the kids alone at home. When we do, I make a point to sit the kids down separately so I can lay out the ground rules. I start with Clara. As the oldest, I tell her, it is her responsibility to make peace and keep order. She is not, and I stress this point, in charge. She does not make rules. She does not give commands. She does not have to be obeyed. She is to find out what her siblings want to do, and then help them so they can do it safely. She is to advise and warn and then report back to us when we get home if anything has gone wrong. Then I secretly pull her brother and sister aside and tell them that Clara is in charge and they have to do everything she says no matter what.
Every time I have done this, I have to stop the car in the driveway and take one last look at our house, just in case I never see it again.
The kids do not have a phone, but we can send messages to each other while we are out so Clara can send us things such as “???????????????????????” and “hi hi hi hi hi hi hihihihi i love you i love you i love you i love you i love you” and “gideon is onoying”. Just so we know they are still alive. And if something catches on fire they can turn on a video call so we can watch our house burn down from the frozen food section of Walmart.
We were gone less than I expected this time. Andrea’s cough meant even the frozen food section of Walmart was off-limits to us. So, there wasn’t much we could do other than drive in circles and pick up a take out order for dinner.
Clara met us in the garage. She seemed upset. This is the usual greeting after one of these outings.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.”
The kids! They are driving me CRAZY!”
Andrea and I nodded and shared a look of understanding.
“So, what did you guys do then?”
She pointed in the air. “I did everything I could think of. I made up a game. We watched a show. We listened to a song and made up a dance…””That sounds fine,” I said, shrugging as I pulled the take-out bags from the backseat.
“Yes,” she went on. “Those things were fine, but then they would NOT meditate with me.”
I put the bags back down.
“I’m sorry, what?”
She waved her hands around randomly. “I was a little tired after dancing. So, I decided we would have a meditation time. I said we could sit still and say nothing for 30 minutes. Remember, like you did with us that one time.”
“Okay, well, for one thing. That was that ONE time. Also, it wasn’t all three of you at once, if you remember. We did that one at a time. And not all of you had to sit with me for the full 30-minutes.”
“Wait, what?! Just me?!”
“That’s not my point,” I said quickly. “My point is, that this probably was just a bad time to try to pull off a forced 30-minute meditation time.”
She narrowed her eyes but didn’t answer.
I chuckled and handed her one of my bags on my way into the house. “So,” I asked as we got to the kitchen. “How long did they last?
“She slumped into a chair. “I timed us. Gideon only made it to two minutes. And then Lydia broke down as soon as he ran out of the room. I stopped then too. It’s hard to meditate while yelling at people.
“I looked out the window and laughed. “Tell me about it. But you know. Two minutes is actually impressive.” I ran a hand through my hair. “No… Not bad at all.”
She came and stood next to me. “Hey!” she said, looking out at our front yard. “Did you see that it snowed?”
“Yes,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulders. “Yes, I saw that. That was actually about a week ago.”