Earlier this fall, we had a slippery mouse invade the kitchen garbage and leave tarry grains of mouse poop under our sink, dodging each trap we set. Then, the painters accidentally sprayed part of the asphalt roof blue, and it seemed, for a while, that the only remedy was a disproportionately expensive replacement of the entire roof. During this time, our younger son spent a week unable to walk on his right foot and in excruciating pain. We met with the pediatrician, the orthopedic specialist, the rheumatologist. The pain went away as mysteriously as it arrived, but a week later he came down with a stomach bug that was going around the middle school. He vomited for a few days, then started vomiting blood. The doctors admitted him to Children’s Hospital. He missed two weeks of school and the doctors told us he might miss as much as two additional weeks. My writing fell so far behind it came to a standstill.
It was one of those periods where things kept piling up, one after the other. Some issues less serious than others, and even the more serious ones were not really that serious (the bloody vomit, for example, was due to a Mallory Weis tear and was predicted to heal as the general vomiting subsided). But as the pile grows, you start to wonder how much more you can take. What’s the proverbial straw to break the mama camel’s back?
Our older son likes to drink smoothies before he bikes to high school in the mornings. Bananas, milk, ice, yogurt, and some combination of frozen berries. One day during this period of stacking stressors, I filled the blender, poured in the milk, and pressed “on.” The motor buzzed, but simultaneously, milk flowed out the bottom of the glass pitcher. The bottom attachment hadn’t been screwed on tightly. An exorbitant amount of milk—way more than it seemed I had poured in to make the smoothie—puddled on the counter, ran down the cabinet doors, and pooled on the kitchen floor.
I thought “not crying over spilt milk” was about not sweating the small stuff. And also, accepting that once something has happened (the milk spilled), there’s not much use spending time wishing it hadn’t (it did). But watching milk flood the space where I was making breakfast, I felt weighted down by the feeling of, This. This is where I crack. Where I stop functioning. For a second or two, I was incapable of doing anything except regret with exceptional remorse the milk in front of me.
When I returned to some level of capability and grabbed towels and started mopping up the mess, I thought of our Halfway Down the Stairs themed issue, Spilt Milk. So this is what spilled milk feels like, I thought. Something seemingly simple and inconsequential, yet, at least momentarily, insurmountable. Important. Overwhelming.
I remember a week after my mother died, and all of us at my stepfather’s apartment making plans for her ashes, for the memorial service, talking over again and again the accident that had taken her life. The kids were six and eight, and one of them spilled a glass of milk at the dinner table. My generous stepfather was in the middle of bringing food out to the table, and I remember him freezing, his face showing incredible emotion, incomprehension mixed with an inner fight to suppress fury. With everything else, the spilled milk was beyond him.
Now November, our younger son is still suffering from whatever is going on in his stomach. We have more tests scheduled at the hospital. He’s missed a month of school and showing no signs of improvement. Most of the time, I can handle the daily challenges: leaving messages for doctors, researching again what foods might stay down, organizing schoolwork that is sent home, watching him suffer from the constant pain. But I take extra care to hold things carefully, to double check what I’m doing. I don’t think I can handle another glass of spilled milk right now.
We hope you enjoy the latest issue of Halfway Down the Stairs as our authors put their characters on the line. We can only try to imagine ourselves in their shoes and remember to be gentle.
— Milena Nigam, Nonfiction Editor
© 2017, Milena Nigam