She lies awake in her bed by the window, sheets tossed away to fight against the heat of the night. Our restless firstborn. All the churning inner energy and frustration of Dr M and I channelled into one small body.
Next to her, less than a foot away lies her brother J. J the forever baby of the family. J the Jack-in-a-Box boy full of playful alertness. He talks to himself in his melodic early toddler way, experimenting with rolls of the tongue, kicking at the sides of his cot. Scattering words and sounds and limbs.
Only W is silent. Our middle child. The kid who defies the family pattern, who seems to sip the nectar of peace in his slumber. The only person I know to fall asleep smiling.
Three beds in a row like a scene from a nursery storybook. Our living fantasy. Our unbelievable reality. Just how did we get here? I ask myself as I lay beside them in the sighing night, soft music playing in an attempt to beckon sleep. How? Sometimes when I look at them lately I feel like all I see is questions.
‘When will I be an adult?’ E stirs a little, and the words peek out through her curls. She does that, fools us into thinking she’s finally still, and then starts up again. I should hardly be surprised, I suppose, Dr M and I are notorious night owls.
‘Not for a long time,’ I answer, not yet sure if it is out of fear or longing that she asks. When she says nothing more I add, ‘ You need to grow a lot first.’
‘Growth is slow,’ she yawns out.
‘Indeed it is,’ I hear myself answer.
Overnight it seems Dr M has been transformed. Fingers automatically accustomed to thumbing books and rattling at keys have become blackened by something more than coffee grounds. Previously unknown sensations have overcome him. He has a hankering for soil, for the texture and fragrance of herbs and fruits, for the solid force of a spade in his hand. Dr M has become a gardener.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, his father Glenn’s garden tours are legendary. For years the son accommodated the father, looking, but not really seeing. But now. Now he succumbs. After years of weighing tension in his shoulders, sitting under the load of a young academic’s plight— radically inflated expectations, an impossible workload—something in him opens, breaks, and falls. Now he longs for the outdoors. He thirsts for movement.
Like little garden elves, the kids are his faithful helpers, staying out beyond bedtime, at the end of hot days raising dirt and water. The old Italian man across the road, witnessing our garden pantomime , comes across the road with arms full of mangoes. Offerings of fruit from one garden to another. We bite into the juicy, tangerine flesh. The taste accentuated by the knowledge it grew just nearby.
I tease my husband about his new obsession. About the ferocity with which it seems to have come upon him. About the time he spends in it’s company. My favourite subject is that of his ‘babies.’ The little plants he tends with added affection. The runts of the lot, like the little pig in Charlotte’s Webb. The unlovable forgotten ones, these he seems to care about the most. He makes a ‘special care nursery’ for them in the corner of the garden. An elevated platform where they can stand together and catch the light.
‘Come over here,’ he beckons me one morning to the ‘nursery’, just before we need to take E to school.
Forever the anxious timekeeper, I look down at the digits on my phone. ‘We need to go,’ I say, as I always say.
‘It will only take a minute,’ he says, ever the time-loosener.
He points out two small pots to me. Both basil. His tone is parental. ‘This one,’ he says, ‘is the younger, but look how much it has grown?’ I look down into the green, glistening shoots. I nod.
‘But this one,’ he takes my hand, ‘though older, it has struggled. Until very recently I nearly threw it out. But look at it now!’
I look down into the tiniest of sprouts, like baby fingers reaching for the sun.
I’m glad he didn’t give up on it.
Sometimes lately I find myself regretting the name I chose for this space. Charlies Dickens said that when he wrote a novel, the point he knew it was a real thing was when he found the title. Names give shape, direction even. Perhaps when I decided on those four words, Spilled Milk and Sunsets, I was just ushering in the chaos.
Everything, it seems, is spilling lately. Overflowing. Running. Even an innocent carton of eggs displaces itself from my hands, falls to the ground and breaks, yellow yoke (‘lellow,’ one of Baby J’s favourite words) bleeding into the hidden space under the fridge. Sometimes it feels lately like even sunsets are part of the spilling.
I’ve been taking E to school on the bus. Apart from helping Dr M, it seems to help her nerves. The jostling movement as the big vehicle weaves and bustles its way through busy inner-city, weekday traffic, the flow of people in and out, the colour and action— rather than disturbing her it serves as a distraction. Our sensitive girl swallows in the sights and sounds and smells and bit by bit unravels. One morning she doesn’t cling to me when I drop her at her teacher. She smiles, and settles. I think, perhaps this is it then, we’ve arrived on the mysterious other side of new-school-nerves. Dr M and I celebrate. This is growth, I think.
The next morning is another story. She plants herself solid under a tree outside the school and refuses to move. She screams. I sense the eyes of other parents. I feel criticism (though in fact, it probably is not). It takes time to budge her, gentle, patient nudging when I want to jab. We enter the school building late.
‘Reason?’ the secretary asks for our mistake.
‘An emotional morning,’ I answer, toning it down and compressing the days events into a succinct, palatable shape.
She lets us through.
I cry quietly to myself as I walk away, and call Dr M. ‘I thought she was growing,’ I lament. ‘Now we are going backwards.’
‘Not necessarily’, he replies. ‘What if this too is growth.’
Dr M and I talk in metaphors. One of the advantages of being married to someone as odd-bally as yourself is that you speak the same language, or at least a dialect of it. And in seasons when it is hard to articulate, to find the meaning, metaphors are sometimes what you need to word-walk through the grey.
Dr M comforts me after the hard morning. We sit on the patch of porch outside our front door, catching at the breeze, catching at uninterrupted conversation as the kids play around us.
‘There are many types of growth,’ Dr M says. ‘We all want to see shoot growth,’ he gestures with his expressive, large hands. ‘Shoot growth is highly visible, definable.’
It makes us feel like we are doing okay, I think to myself. In case anyone is watching, we feel more assured of what we are revealing.
‘But root growth,’ he continues. ‘That’s deeper, darker down. Less obvious, sometimes hidden.’
The type of growth looking for an anchor, I think. The type of growth fighting to hold on, and in the fighting, forming foundations. Securing.
‘We all know which one feels better’, says Dr M. ‘But that doesn’t mean greater work isn’t going on even when we can’t see it.’
A few days Dr M reports to me about his green nursery. The struggling basil has grown taller again. It doesn’t even look like a baby anymore.
I ask him what the change was.
‘Fresh soil,’ he says. ‘The roots were crushed in the old soil, but now the soil is fresh they have room to move. It’s celebrating its freedom.’
I smile. Not just at my husband’s enthusiasm but because the roots have found anchor. It might have taken a little time and love to figure it out, but now the little plant is on its way.
Time and love, and patience. Soil and water for all types of growth. For all seasons.