Middle one. Handful. Emotions fill you to the brim, quivering at the lip of your cup. They spill over and I try to mop up the mess but you're like an open tap.
Mama, can you build me this Lego house? You've been asking all morning.
Sure, I can, now that Ruthie is napping.
I sit on the floor and look at the instruction booklet, open to a heavily creased page. Your heart is set, anticipating. But it's just a picture – no step-by-step for this one. And lunch is looming and dishes are waiting and I have neither time nor head space to improv this design. To be honest, I've never been good at building.
I can't do it, sweetie. I'm sorry. I explain all the strikes against me. But the edge creeps into your voice.
I try to bargain. A different house? The one on that page, the one with instructions?
No. You're up another notch.
I try to reason, explaining that if you want lunch sometime soon, I have to make it now.
I know where this is going. I'm grasping at a rock wall that's shedding pebbles and threatening an avalanche. I try one last ditch effort, tossing a bucket dripping with hope at your smoldering fire.
Maybe Daddy can try when he gets home?
No!!! [Exclamation points are not sufficient here – is there punctuation mark that exudes whining and anger and disappointment and demands?]
I knew it wouldn't work. Your eyes are too fixated on your desires and you can't see me at the end of the tunnel, cupping points of light in my outstretched hands – reason, compromise, patience. The darkness of no crushes you, a freight train only you can feel.
And the tantrum lasts though lunch until you finally burn out and your silly, laughing, scheming self peeks out from under the wreckage of puffy eyes and tear-streaked cheeks.
In the space of time between here and your next breath, you forget all about that Lego house and the fit and the fire that raged through the hour. But I can't. I'm charred to a crisp, burned down and burned out from walking through the flames with you.
My stomach is stuffed full of hot coals, smoldering over what I should have said or done differently, how I could have reached out with the right strain of compassion to pull you away from your disappointment and hurt.
I'm bothered all day. Feeling kind of mad at you but mostly at myself for what I lack in patience and the steel skin to let this roll off of me. But I know that this is just you being three and middle and owner of all the spit and fire and wild emotions that make you you.
The day is done. You're in bed, nestled between blankets and stuffed snakes, eyes half masted and so near sleep. I say goodnight and you mumble I love you and we've both let whatever weighed us down before melt away into this soft darkness. Tomorrow will dawn quiet and spacious and we'll fill the new day up with different bricks and noises, immersed in the business and beauty of being.