Unsung, Unstrung


I don’t want to work

I want to bang on my drum all day

Todd Rundgren

Captain Higgle’s ‘Rainbow Ship’ made its maiden voyage in my living room last weekend.  Constructed from an enormous cardboard TV box and every kind of tape known to humankind, Sydney and Haley designed their pirate ship with only a little help from Dad. Sails of giant foam squares attach with duct tape to the handle of a push broom forming the mast.   A cut out drawbridge lowers from the helm onto the gangplank engineered from plywood and risers from Mom’s Reebok step.

My girls imagine vivid landscapes when they make believe, acting out stories and fantasies of all sorts.  Household items become props as they set the stage for their dramatic improvisation. Haley crawls on her hands and knees, sniffing and licking at two bowls; one of water, the other, cheerios. “I’m a newborn black lab,” she says.

She’s often the inventive mastermind, but Sydney plays her part with panache. School and doctor and house, their pretending is frequently taken from ordinary stuff.  They like to be mommies, rocking and walking their dolls.  When I eavesdrop, their dialogue is vaguely familiar and I wonder if their depiction is modeled after my own mothering.  They talk to their Barbies and to their stuffed animals.  They talk in accents, Haley’s British a hybrid of Queen Elizabeth and Artful Dodger.  “Muthah, can I have a puppay?”

Play is their natural state.  They don’t have to try.  It’s what they do. I don’t remember the last time I used my imagination for anything other than transporting myself to a white sand beach in a secluded tropical paradise.

I’ve always thought I was not an imaginative child, but I know that can’t be true.  I remember my brother and I building and creating and performing.  But, as the proverbial good girl, I learned early that a highly developed work ethic gets approval from authority; a penchant for goofing off does not.  And my work ethic was accompanied by an ambition for perfection in all things, leaving me little time for fun. If attending the prince’s ball in the Cinderella story is a metaphor for indulging in life’s pleasures, I was raised with the adage of the stepmother ringing in my subconscious, “I see no reason why you can’t go . . . if you get all your work done.”

Over the years, with the help of therapists and girlfriends (frequently more effective than therapy and always less expensive), I discovered a self-worth independent of my achievements.  I came to believe I deserve to relax now and then, but I still can’t get over the ‘if.’  Try as I might, the work is never finished. Like a mirage that moves away as I approach, the satisfaction of fulfilling my obligations beckons without delivering.

Rather than ambition, what drives me now are the constant demands of adulthood, and parenting is the ultimate in growing up.  Raising children for (can it really be?) 28 years now, I ponder how many loads of laundry that is; how many beds made and dishes washed.  How many bills paid and doctors visited; how many gallons of gas in the car and milk in the fridge? The responsibilities and chores and obligations and commitments multiply with every child, and exponentially so with a child who has Down syndrome, where every new phase introduces uncharted challenges. Weariness pervades my days.  And Steven is buried under an avalanche of pressure that threatens to crush his spirit.  At times, being an adult seems a load too heavy to bear.

On the nights my husband walks in and sees me bowing under the strain, face haggard and tense, so lost in my litany of tasks that I can’t even manage a smile, he says, “Put down the dish towel and step a-way from the sink.”  He knows I’m on the verge of completely losing it, of morphing into Jack from The Shining:  All work and no play makes Lisa a dull girl.  Dull and crabby.

It’s then that he stages an intervention.

Sometimes, it’s a hilarious comment.  Steven’s intelligent sense of humor and quick wit always make me laugh. Or, using a less direct approach, he chases the girls around the house and wrestles them to the floor.  There’s nothing more contagious than the helpless, slightly hysterical laughter of children being tickled mercilessly.  Or maybe he just plays a song I need to hear.  Energizing or soothing, celebratory or mellow, music is a no-fail mood changer.

Making music has always been a part of my life.  My home was filled with music when I was a child. I studied theatre and music in college, and worked as a music therapist and piano teacher.  I performed music as a professional, and as a mother, I sang to my babies from birth.  Being a musician is part of my identity; it’s my way to play, to lose track of time and forget everything else. Music is the ultimate creative expression and even semantics defines its nature: we ‘play’ instruments, we ‘play’ music.

But, somewhere along the way my guitar gathered dust and I lost the callouses on my fingers.  My grandmother’s piano sat un-touched, and my lyric soprano voice became rough and hoarse through use in teaching fitness instead of music.

Somehow I got too busy to play. Spontaneity and silliness are rare companions these days.  I’m somber and far too often, downtrodden.  When did life get so serious?  Fun for its own sake became frivolous and indulgent—I couldn’t justify the time.  Cinderella’s work wasn’t done.

Once a year, though, I do embrace my inner thespian and dress up for Halloween. Steven shares my theatrical proclivity, maybe more so.  The key to a really great costume is in the accessories—wigs, crowns, swords, capes—and the attention to detail that some might consider extreme.  For example, to portray Clark Kent morphing into Superman, he once shaved his mustache, revealing a naked upper lip that hadn’t seen the light of day in 19 years.

The year Halloween fell on a Saturday night we invited friends and neighbors over to trick-or-treat with the kids and stay for dinner. While they were out, I made spaghetti, running from the kitchen each time the doorbell summoned, passing out candy to witches and fairies and skeletons and ninjas.  When everyone blew in from the cold, the food was warm and ready.  While we ate, the kids buzzed from their sugar high and the adults laughed and talked.  It was noisy, pleasant commotion.  Then, we put on a movie for the kids and went downstairs for a grown up play date; Rock Band.

I’d never played before and was intrigued.  It was kind of like karaoke with a ‘live’ band. Okay, sure, it’s a video game—the guitar, bass and drums are just big color-coded controllers and ‘playing’ the music involves pushing (or hitting) the right buttons (or pads) at the right time.  But the music!  Classic, pop, new wave, metal, old school, new school and everything in between, piped through the surround-sound triggered the latent musician in me and set the stage for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

It started with a wig.  Then a hat.  Then a cat-in-the-hat hat over a wig.  As the party amped up, we dug out our costume collection: an over-sized pair of sunglasses; a feather boa; more wigs—a mullet, a curly perm, long blonde locks ala Hannah Montana, an Amy Winehouse beehive; and hats—an army beret, a cowboy hat, a Gilligan fishing hat, a tiara.  Song after song, I watched my friends lose their inhibitions and age in reverse, letting the kid in each of them come out and play.  While our children crashed upstairs under a pile of blankets, we played dress up, rocking the night away at our imaginary concert.

Remembering it now reminds me of the TV show Ally McBeal, the part where the cast members, professionally attired, are shot from behind, walking down the sidewalk after a day in court.  The camera pans away to the city nightscape and when it pans back, they’ve turned into children, still in the same clothes that are now way too big; the sleeves of suit jackets hang to the ground, high heels wobble forcing small, choppy steps. Their voices and conversations don’t change—they banter and tease each other.  Aren’t we all just kids playing dress up?

That night started something.  We got our own Rock Band game; adding a keyboard and upgrading the bass and guitar and drum kit, and even buying extra microphones for singing harmonies.   I know it’s not the same, but I’m singing and playing music again.  With my kids.  We lose ourselves in the music and forget everything else. We ROCK the family BAND.  Steven’s literally a ‘pro’ on the drums with mad skills, playing Rush with percussive precision; I love the guitar, fingering notes as if I’m really playing that solo in a song by Boston that takes me straight back to high school.  The girls sing; Haley’s sweet voice, pitch perfect, and Sydney’s, not so much, but what she lacks in accuracy, she makes up for in earnest effort: as Sydney reaches for the high note, her voice slides up, up, up until she finds it, locks on and belts it out, her face shining with joy.  My eyes find her Dad’s and we smile.

I fall in love all over with my husband, my partner, the one who shoulders the weight of our life by my side.  Holding on through the rough patches together has deepened our love.  Playing together, returning to our carefree selves, allows us to celebrate that love.

Sunday night, after spending a busy weekend working, I sat at my computer looking at the week ahead and realized with a jolt that I never stop; the work that I must get done is perpetual and it makes my head spin.  “Cinderella,” I thought, “if you wait to go to the ball until your work is done, you’ll be old and decrepit.  And the ball will be over.”

“Hey, guys!  Who wants to play Rock Band?” I yelled.  The girls came running, “Me! Me! I do!”  At that moment I knew there was nothing that could not wait.  It would all still be there when I finished playing.



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Filed under Family, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting, Siblings, Sisterhood

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