She was at the door when I arrived, a bundle of nerves rising on tiptoes and weaving back and forth. I hadn't even gotten into the house before she thrust a $50 bill at me and her teal-colored lifeline, its touch-screen glass all smashed to smithereens.
Tears were in her eyes and a chunk of her savings in her hands.
“I dropped it in the driveway. It didn't even land on the face, but it shattered anyway. I didn't mean to … it was an accident. I looked it up, I think it will cost about $50 to repair.” The declaration seemed to come out of her mouth as one long, beseeching word.
And then she paused and said slowly:
“Are you mad?”
See, that's what she was really afraid of. That I would be mad at her the way I am about homework and arguing with her brother, and all manner of other little incidents that neither she nor I can really control .. like the spilling milk … or cereal … or milk with cereal.
“Of course I'm not mad,” I say, reassuringly as if she'd have to be crazy to think that I'd be mad about something like that. As if all accidents were the result of carelessness and that all carelessness could be avoided with a modicum of forethought.
And as if all forethought wasn't somehow linked to me saying “I told you so,” in the harsh light of an inevitable outcome.
But the truth was, she'd gotten me on a good day. I didn't have anger or resentment or anxiety hanging over me, so I could handle news of a disappointing nature with an added amount of grace.
Which I immediately translated into guilt currency, and how much of it I owe.
I hadn't been so gracious with her brother the day before … you know … Crying over spilled milk?
Turns out, I'm not good with tears. The crying? The carrying on? The Whole World is Ending phenomenon because someone is using his scooter … or because she can't get her hair into a bun … or because we arrived at the party four minutes later than everyone else? The helplessness I feel at the meltdown that follows?
That. Makes. Me. Completely. Insane.
And it occurred to me, it's because I don't know how to fix it.
I know what to do about a broken computer screen. I know it will take time and money and a trip to the computer store's “Genius Bar.”
But a broken heart isn't as easily mended.
And at that very moment, as I was pondering all the things that I don't know how to do (and trying to get an appointment at the computer store) while simultaneously perusing Facebook, I clicked on a link to a Huffington Post story. It was a piece by Rachel Macy Stafford, an author and special education teacher, who put forward a simple answer in the form of a question:
“How can I help?”
As I reread the piece, it occurred to me that I don't have to have the answers. I don't even have to feel bad about NOT having the answers. I just have to be willing to support someone as they figure out what they need to do.
The next time emotion overtook my son, I took a deep breath and tried saying those four words, only this time without my usual sarcasm.
“How can I help?”
Before I could begin listing ideas, he had stopped crying.
“I know what to do,” he said, drying his eyes.
For a moment, I felt like I'd gotten the key to the universe.
And it didn't require fifty bucks and an appointment at the Genius Bar.