When the Door Opens
"There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." I learned the truth of Graham Greene’s words when I was nine.
It was a rainy Sunday. I was playing hide and seek with my sister in our apartment. I always found the best hiding places, places she never thought to look. It drove her crazy. She’s be looking and looking, going back to places she’d already looked, but she wouldn’t find me. I was so gleeful that I fooled her so well. She never thought to look on the top shelf of the closet, or in the bathtub where I had pulled the shower curtain round me. Once I even hid under the covers in her own bed. She passed by me three times and never saw me. It’s a wonder she still wanted to play with me, especially since I always found her.
On the day of infamy, I decided to hide behind the china cabinet. The space was just a little too tight, so I gave the cabinet, which was on wheels, a sharp shove forward. The door swung wide open, and with a crash I can still hear if I listen hard enough, my mother’s entire collection of precious figurines fell out.
Did you ever see the movie, Slaughterhouse Five or read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel? Well there is scene when the entire city of Dresden is in rubble from the Allied fire bombing, and the American prisoners of war have to sift through the rubble to find anything of value left. One soldier finds one precious china figurine intact. If you remember that scene: the silence, the juxtaposition of all that rubble and the one intact piece, well you have some idea of how it was at our house that day.
I changed that day. As the cabinet crashed to the ground, my mother and I were rooted to our respective spots in shock. Then we both started to cry, huge sobs of grief and guilt. My mother could not say a word. All I could repeat was: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” We were stuck there as if in a pageant, unable to change the scene, locked in that moment in time. Sometimes, I wonder if we’d still be there if my father had not intervened.
Dad moved us both away from the scene to different places. He got us both calmed down and then helped me pick up the pieces of the broken figurines. We were able to glue some back together, but most were a total loss. As we worked Dad talked about what had happened, that he knew it was an accident and that I had not done it on purpose. He said it was a matter of what was precious to us. To him people mattered more and these only things, and we could replace them. He suggested that Mom would forgive me in time, and that I might buy her some figurines with my birthday money.
Part of me believed Dad. I wanted things to calm down and to be forgiven so I could stop feeling so guilty. But part of me knew that the things were important to my mother, and that they would not be replaced any time soon. Even if they were, they wouldn’t be the same ones, and that would matter to my mother. At that moment I took a walk in my mother's shoes and understood how much she had treasured the figurines: they were her memories of so many good times, and they kept her going despite what were hard times financially and emotionally. My mother was like that city of Dresden after the fire bombing, an emotional rubble heap, and those figurines were like that china miracle the soldier found, a hope for a better tomorrow. Of course Slaughterhouse Five hadn’t been written yet, but the sentiments I felt were the same.
For years I wished I could take back that one moment in time. I could see my hand reaching out to push the cabinet away from the wall a little more, and I would wish and wish and wish I could stop time, and change what had happened, not push the cabinet, not have thought of that hiding place. All I wanted was one moment to change, such a small thing to ask, but of course it wasn’t.
The shock of that awful moment changed my relationship with my mother, and we never went back to how things were before. It wasn’t worse or better, just different. At first I thought that she couldn’t forgive me, but it wasn’t that. It was more that we saw each other differently. In that space created by the crash of the china cabinet, we created a distance from how we’d been before, and in that space, there was room to change our previous assumptions. Thus, I saw my mother as vulnerable, and not the invincible figure of my earlier childhood. This meant that I relied on her less, and myself more. I also was more thoughtful and empathic. And, oddly enough, though I had destroyed a whole cabinet full of precious figurines, my mother gave me more, rather than less, responsibility in the months and years to come.
As I have listened to families, and children especially, telling me about the crashes in their lives, I have begun to see that many crashes create spaces in which new insights are born, new skills are developed. Each space that surrounds a crash allows one to see that there are a number of possibilities, a number of different doors that might open, each leading off in a different direction. I have come to see that it is not choosing the right door that matters, Indeed, there is no right door. It’s not like a game show on television, but more a matter of being in the space after the crash, and allowing oneself to fall into the pain and the consequences and from that to grow.
This is difficult to do in a world where we expect a quick fix for all of life’s pain, where we impatiently want to get on with things. Suffering is not honored, but treated with exasperation. "Get over it." "If you have lemons, make lemonade." "Put on a happy face." "Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone." Well maybe, but isn't crying even alone, worth something?
The space that surrounds us after a crash is an opportunity to change, if we allow ourselves the chance to do so. Trying to solve the problem, overcome the obstacle, make lemonade, prevent us from learning what we might from our tragedy. So many times I’ve read about someone who had a bad accident or was a crime victim but escaped with minor injuries. “They weren’t really hurt,” we think. What happened afterwards isn’t part of the equation.
I wonder about what happened afterwards. Is there a door that opened into their future? Think of all the really dumb things we do and how narrowly we escape tragedy. We didn’t crash, we didn’t die. Do we stop and see the door through which we have just walked? Suppose things were just a tad different and we hadn’t escaped? Can we learn something from the phantom pain of our amputated experience?
In children’s lives, the opportunity to learn from the crashes that happen to them and to others is often mitigated by adults. I am not talking about offering comfort and support, helping to think of what to do, as my father did, but instead of adults who take over the problem acting as if they could spare the child the pain. In doing so, children are deprived of an opportunity to grow in insight, empathy and selfhood. What we send to children, instead, is a message that people ought never to be disappointed or sad, and if they are, it needs to be fixed as fast as possible. When we can’t fix it, we feel we have failed. What we overlook is that even when we can, fixing the problem isn’t the end point. There are still spaces to be explored.
The spaces in our lives come not only after crashes and near misses, but also after positive results. Sometimes these are obvious as when we get that desired promotion or entry into the college of our choice. Smaller events bring spaces too: a call from an old friend, the long anticipated night on the town, the sudden joy of getting a new puppy.
When living with a child, it is important to take advantage of these moments for growth. They are the moments when the child is most available for change, for moral and spiritual growth, for becoming a better person. In fact, our whole lives we need the time to reflect, to talk to others about feelings, to examine the spaces as we start to recognize that they exist in even the smallest of changes.
One mistake we make with children is to give them things when they are upset. This helps for the moment but leaves the child feeling empty. A child who has learned to value the spaces in life is comfortable with being rather than getting or doing. This sort of child then values relationships and realizes that people are more important than things.
Rather than bustling around so much this holiday season, and throughout the next year, try to stop and value the moment. When crashes come, try to see the spaces around them that allow for reflection and change. Make use of them, not in a lemonade sort of way, but in valuing the gift you have been given to find out more about yourself and others.
My mother and I never really talked about the day of the china cabinet catastrophe. Oh, from time to time someone in the family would mention the day or they'd hold the remaining intact figurine and describe the miracle of its survival. As a new precaution with the younger children, the cabinet door was kept locked. Still, I could never walk past the cabinet without thinking of that day, and wishing that I had been more cautious.
Recently, I went to visit one of my sisters who had inherited the cabinet when my mother died several years ago. As we went past it on our way to the kitchen, my sister remarked: "Remember the day...?" And "What happened to that lovely figurine?"
I didn’t tell her that one day Mom had offered it to me and I had declined because of all the bad memories it held for me. Besides I am not a figurine sort of person. After that it seems to have disappeared. I know my sister still would like to have it, but none of us has ever seen it again. Maybe Mom gave it to someone else. Maybe she broke it herself. Or maybe it’s somewhere in the rubble of fire bombed Dresden waiting for someone else to find it and remark upon its beauty, and the miracle of its survival. Or something like that.