I think we become parents long before we have children.
I know I was a parent long before I even was sure I wanted a child. I mothered all my boyfriends, pets and friends, and a few strangers on long lines at Unemployment, Disneyland, and airports. But I never had to mother a family member until Alex Trebek came along and fucked it all up.
My younger sister married her college boyfriend, went on to graduate and then post-graduate school in psychology, then had her first child while her husband was still in law school. She defended her thesis between baby #one and baby #two, garnering a Ph.d. in clinical psychology. She went on to have two more children. All before age 35.
Not one of these things ever occurred to me at all. A real education with 3 degrees aimed at helping others? Married by 25? To an actual person with a name and more than one pair of shoes? A baby before 30? “What?” and “Why?” was all I could say as Deirdre went about amassing degrees and kids. She had a plan, and it was called a life.
I had no plan, hence, no life.
Then fifteen years later, ensconced with her thriving family in a sweet town in Connecticut, Deirdre went ahead and auditioned for Jeopardy, the TV game show, as opposed to jeopardy, the quality of endangerment. Her four daughters convinced her to audition.
The bummer is she got on Jeopardy, the TV game show, which films in Los Angeles.
Deirdre lives in Connecticut. Deirdre is many things. A flier is not one of them. She eagerly drives thousands of miles to avoid having any part of herself need to leave the ground. We have all tried everything to get her to fly, to no avail. The irony of her not wishing to put herself in jeopardy in order to be on Jeopardy was not appreciated. By her, anyway.
However, the irony of being a clinical psychologist who is terrified of flying is not lost on her.
When it became clear to the whole family that Deirdre was not going to go on Jeopardy unless she could be livefed via satellite from her couch in Connecticut, and we kinda figured Alex Trebek wouldn’t go for that, someone (Mom) came up with a crazy solution.
As I was the only un-encumbered person in the family- no child, husband, real job, facsimile of a life, the plan was hatched. I would fly from LA to New York, take a car service to Connecticut, keep the driver waiting while I grab Deirdre and fly her back to LA. Then my other sister (also in LA) and I would get her to Jeopardy, she’d win buckets of cash, then we’d force her to fly back home.
The family chipped in so we could fly First Class, but to a aviato-phobic person, First Class is still on an airplane, which has a nasty habit of flying around 30,000 feet above Deirdre’s comfort zone.
My First Class flight to New York was awesome to the point of motivating me to go back to school for a master’s in something useful. In First Class no one bats an eye if you ask for the whole can of soda, or the whole bottle of Pinot. While drinking, I cooked up a pile of ideas to make the flight fun for Deirdre. It involved antique candy from our childhood and every single trashy magazine on the newstand.
By the time I got to Connecticut, I was cheerfully loaded for bear, but Deirdre was ashen and monosyllabic. My cargo pants full of fun plans melted in the face of primal animal fear. The car outside was waiting but she wasn’t budging.
Luckily, Deirdre’s strength, her daughters, also was her weakness. A spectacular mother, she doesn’t want her aviatophobia to influence or curtail her girls’ life choices. So, as long as we never left her alone, I figured we, as a group, were going to get her on that damn plane. If only all of us could have flown with her, in a big unrelenting group hug, it might have worked. We got her packed and her bags in the car. She hugged her girls as if I was going to air drop her over North Korea.
As we walked to the car, she sobbed and I faltered. Maternal instincts kicked in. W
hy put her through this, drag her onto a plane, for a game show hosted by an arrogant Canadian with a porn star mustache?’ I told Deirdre I wouldn’t force her and no one would blame her for backing down.
But Deidre, ever the good mother, knew her daughters wanted to root for their mom on TV Jeopardy and she didn’t want to set a bad example of succumbing instead of overcoming challenges.
Pale, weeping and shaking, she stoically walked beside me to the waiting Town Car. On the eternal ride to JFK, I tried to woo her with Charleston Chews, Moon Pies, Turkish Taffy and Bit O’Honeys. She just looked through me as if I was the Death Row nun walking her to her noose. What do you say to pure fear? Nothing as I recall. You can’t feed fear, either. Fear might seem to have an appetite, but it really doesn’t.
As we navigated bag check, security and waiting to board, and she shook and shuddered, ghostly pale, I decided to hold her hand. We are not an affectionate family. Sure, we hug, but not tightly. We kiss, but lightly and on the cheek. We say “love you” and leave off the far too intimate”I”. While it felt awkward, what felt worse was her letting me. She endured my hand in hers the way she was enduring her anxiety- by surrendering to the horror of hideous fate. I let her hand go. It seemed the less cruel thing to do, since I couldn’t actually promise her we weren’t about to crash and die.
Settled in our luxurious seats, I revealed every cheesy gossip rag I had secured, hoping the personal or professional demise of random celebrities would give Deirdre’s fear a mini-vacation. It didn’t work. She looked away, containing herself, as if trying to keep me from catching her infection of grief and anxiety.
Our impeccable flight attendant offered us endless glasses of lovely California wine. Since I was drained and guilt-stricken from pushing my little sister out of her comfort zone into the thin air of her worst hell, I drank eagerly. I begged Deirdre to drink with me, but she refused. I offered her Xanax, Ambien but she refused to take them.
After glass number 2, I started wondering- what IF we do crash? Good thing I’d be dead or I’d never forgive myself for killing my sister. Getting nervous, I wondered if it would be rude to take a Xanax and decided it would. The plane glided seamlessly into the air, but Deirdre felt every bump, gear shift and and exhale from the cockpit. She grabbed my hand and squeezed as hard as she could. This is a woman who gave birth four times. She knows how to squeeze a hand. I drank with my free hand.
Once aloft and on our way, I offered to test her with Jeopardy questions. No.
Abba Zabba bar warm from my pocket? No.
Warm wet washcloth to gives oneself a whore’s bath at one’s first class seat?
More wine? Not for her. More for me.
To take both our minds off death, I opened People Magazine precisely and accidentally to an awful story about four young sisters losing both parents in a plane accident. Now I was nauseous, from eating fun candy from my unfun childhood, drinking by myself, pretending that my sister’s fear was just a simple feeling easily dismissed.
Suddenly, the emotional sandpit which only happens when suspended in a long metal humming iron lung with 300 other lives in limbo, caught up with me. And while our plane didn’t crash, I did. The losses of other people, even the famous, filled me with deep whirlpools of woe. I ordered more wine, deciding that me being drunk might take Deirdre’s mind off of her imminent tragic demise.
After five interminable hours of lovely first class, we landed so artfully and subtly, I didn’t even feel it. But Deidre was furious, “That was so fucking turbulent!” At least we were on the ground and I would get my now-numb left hand back. The color only returned to her face once we left the plane. Our other sister, Elizabeth, excitedly greeted us in the appropriately named Baggage Claim.
Elizabeth’s over-excitement at Deirdre’s grim arrival reminded me of that strange parental phenomenon I’ve witnessed when children resist dong something allegedly fun. While children scream on Santa’s lap, the parents grin, pretending to be over-joyed, as if their fake grins might somehow infect their children’s fear and change it. Now that I’m a parent, I know it doesn’t work. But we still do it. While waiting for baggage, we strove to avoid bringing up emotional baggage. Deirdre had nothing good to say about the flight- actually she had nothing good to say, period. Elizabeth cheerfully reminded us that we made it there alive, as if that was why people fly- to not die.
Since we had three days together before the Jeopardy taping, we planned all sorts of make-overs for Deirdre. Eyebrow shaping at Anastasia, new clothes at The Grove, Burke Williams for facials, massages, and Jacuzzis. She got new eyebrows, new cardi sets and her first facial/massage in decades. It was fun to treat her and to get to know her again, without her children. But not once did it occur to us to watch Jeopardy. Perhaps if we had, we might have known what we were grooming poor Deirdre for.
On taping day we drove onto the Studio Lot and Deidre was whisked off to join the other brave and happy contestants- also known as fresh meat. Which was probably why the sound stage and audience area was the approximate temperature of a meat freezer- gotta keep that meat fresh.
Gazing at the familiar set, I began to power-sweat. Since most folks watch Jeopardy on TV, no one realizes just how fiendishly intimidating it is to be on a massive stage built from ice and steel, with a subject board 800 feet away. Alex Trebek’s larger, better-lit, podium is about 40 feet from the contestants. The rest of the massive stage is plunged into gloomy blackness. Meanwhile, the buzzer is the size of a hummingbird’s eye. I became enraged. Poor Trivia Joe and Jane, who are smart, decent people, are basically designed to look stupid next to Alex Trebek, who has all the answers on cue cards but acts like he knows it all.
This is why game shows are easy when one is lolling on their couch. Everyone wants to audition for Jeopardy, because when one is eating ice cream in their pajamas they think they can do anything. And they can’t. It’s designed against you in person but shot and edited to make you feel smarter at home. Devious bastards. It got worse. We learned that if a contestant hits their buzzer before Alex finishes reading aloud the question, you get locked out of being able to answer. So, if you are even remotely intelligent, you can read faster than he can speak, but if you buzz before he finishes speaking, you appear to not know the answer. I was outraged.
We also learned they tape about 5 shows in a day. Which means Alex Fucking Trebek works one day a week. I decide he can kiss my freezing Long Island ass. I know it’s not his fault, but I need a scapegoat and he’ll do just fine. Deirdre was picked via some unholy lottery to go in the 4th or 5th game. We, the flash frozen studio audience, were expected to watch all the games taped that day.
During Game One Elizabeth and I realized that Deirdre and all the other hopefuls were going up against this young, eager and paper-white Mormon who was on an eleven-game-gosh-darn-winning streak that musta had Joseph Smith tap dancing in his grave. Oh wait, Mormons don’t dance. But they sure know how to hit a goldarn buzzer.
Wracked with fear and self-loathing I regretted everything I put my poor, sweet sister through to get her here. The flight, paying a Persian woman to spray paint eyebrows on her forehead, all just to compete against Ken Jennings, the winningest slice of Wonder Bread in Jeopardy history. Of course this dude is good at Jeopardy- he’s never had alcohol, drugs or Diet Coke, so his memory is that of a 14 year old who reads nothing but Encyclopedias all day long.
Not only that, but while we were primping Deirdre, Ken Jennings had 11 other games to master it all: the far away board, waiting for Trebek to finish his question and how to buzz properly. The cold and the dark of the stage and the stadium filled with cold people held no fear for him. He was invincible. It was excruciating.
I sat in the audience the way Deirdre sat in the plane. Horrified and utterly terrified in basic human survival mode. I turned to Elizabeth and said, ” Her blood is on our hands. I tortured her on a cross country flight and now we sit here and watch her Christian butt get thrown to the Mormon Lion?” It’s a televised public spanking, with hair and make up. It’s barbary dressed up as daytime TV.
I fully became her mother at this point- aching for her hardship, fighting the urge to run up on the stage and pull her away, freeing her from the heedless bloodshed of trivia jousting. To her credit, Deirdre was unflapped and gave it her best. She even beat Ken Jennings in the Final Jeopardy question. I will die cherishing the final Jeopardy question wherein she cleaned Ken’s already Swiss-clean clock.
“The Shakespearean Romance characters whose names are also used in the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Alphabet.”
Ken said something stupid like “Othello”. Third Place Guy who had walked around all day with a Bic pen he held and clicked like a buzzer (reminding me of Bob Dole) said something like “Smokey The Bear”.
But Deirde knew the answer because it brilliantly combined her vast love of theater and her deep hatred of all things Aviational.
“Who are Romeo and Juliet?”
But just like a well-raised farm boy, Ken Jennings bet cautiously. So, even in losing, he still came out ahead. Even as my heart broke, I was deeply proud of my sister. Just like a mother. And feeling like a mother sucked.
I hated not being able to save her and protect her. But it was her choice. It was her Jeopardy. It was her preferred form of putting herself in harm’s way. And it was hers to win or lose. I would have preferred the terror of a fiercely turbulent plane ride to being on that sound stage, but I couldn’t use my fear to erase hers. I had to sit back and let her be in and on Jeopardy. I had to watch her lose and then I had to force her back on a plane to take her home to her waiting and proud family.
Driving home, trying to erase the image of Deirdre’s sobbing face as she walked alone to her gate and her imagined demise, I finally understood why Hockey Moms run onto the ice to attack mean players, how moms can lift cars off of babies and why Stage Moms exist.
As a parent, you can’t take away their pain, you can’t make them pass the test, nor can you make their team win. You just sit on the sidelines with a grim smile and crushed juice boxes.
A smart mother recently said to me,
“Prepare your children for the path, not the path for your children.”
No wonder I didn’t become a mother until I was 49.