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Monday, February 6, 2012

The Power of A Smile.

I see his eyeball peer around the door frame at me and my spot on the couch. It disappears and reappears in a rocking motion, as everything with him does because he's yet to learn how to be still. His blonde head bobs up and down, repeating the phrase we've come to understand as a request.

"Whatchuwah, whatchuwah!" he urges, his tiny voice filled with desperation.

"What do you want, Kiedis?" I reply as I finish the email I'm typing and turn to look at him. It's a step up from when he used to just yell WANT at us, this phrase that now means the same thing. It's an endless cycle of repetition, but at least he's less likely to melt down now.

He enters the room more fully, three-quarters of his face now visible as he stares me down, a look of disdain, disinterest, and disgust across his angelic cheeks. Eyes bore into the darkest parts of my soul, lips and jaw set but not tight, breath imperceptible without looking to see if the chest rises and falls in rhythm. It's as if you have no value, aren't even really there, just another form of suffering to endure.

I know that face all too well. It is the face I grew up seeing from my father.
I couldn't have been older than five. It was my first dance recital, and I was beside myself with glee. I had begged my parents for what felt like forever for ballet classes, and finally they acquiesced. I had been practicing in my bedroom for weeks, making sure to get my part right. My parents and brother were there to watch me, and for the first time in memory I was going to be special all on my own, separate from anyone else in my family.

I was especially excited to have my dad see what I'd been working so hard on.

But I was young and hadn't been properly coached on stage etiquette. I went out into the studio half filled with chairs and immediately searched out my family. They were in the front, to my left. My mother smiled and waved as she recognized me, pointing me out to my brother who was already bored out of his mind.

But my father sat motionless, arms folded across his chest, staring me down to the bone in disdain.

I tried to ignore it. I looked away and began my routine with the other girls, including my partner, but I couldn't stop the tears from welling up in my eyes, the shaking from beginning.

He was mad. He was mad he had to be there and watch my recital and it was my fault and I was going to be in so much trouble when I got home and and and ...

The tears overwhelmed me and burst forth, startling everyone in the room, and I ran to the alcove where the teacher stood with the stereo system, covering my face in hysterics. My dance partner followed, confused, and another teacher led her back out and took my spot.

I ruined it. I ruined the dance, I ruined the event, I ruined the one thing I'd been looking forward to for weeks. And I never stopped crying, because every time I looked at my dad, I felt as if he hated me more, sure I was never going to not be in trouble with him.
It never failed as I entered my teenage years and into this quasi-adulthood, someone I worked with or was in class with or just saw me on a semi-routine basis would carefully approach me nearly on tip-toe. They'd say my name with extra caution or overly-casually, and ask me why I was upset. Sometimes I would get jokes asking if someone had just killed my cat (never funny) or something equally bad to make me so angry.

More often than not, though, I would only faintly register a voice addressing me and I'd snap out of my reverie slightly surprised and generally disoriented, confusing all parties involved. 

The repetition of the question. My bewildered reassurance that everything was peachy in Tabathaland. Often, the prodding are you sure or what were you thinking about so seriously from those who knew me slightly more intimately, the clumsy response trying to peg down one of the billions of absolutely banal ideas which had been cavorting about inside of myself at the time, like if I wanted spaghetti for dinner or not. The disbelief, the not so subtle dismissal of my insistence of my sound mental state. 

Occasionally, someone would fight me, try to push something out of me that for once, wasn't there. And then I'd become genuinely irritated or angry, illustrating the difference in my facial expression.

It works to my advantage, sometimes -- it only takes the raise of an eyebrow or a purse of my lips to go from blank to bitch, please in nanoseconds. Add with it a change in pitch to my voice and I know I can stop a grown adult dead in their tracks as if they are a toddler caught with their hands in a cookie jar.

But it's taken me until recently to realize the correlation between my upbringing and my relationship with my father and the relationship I have with my son, with his own burgeoning personality becoming more and more apparent with every new word he tries out, every time we finally understand him.
We stare blankly at each other for a moment and a voice inside me gasps smile! because I realize that the more forefront thought in my mind is how much he looks like me, how his little face is practically a facsimile of my own as I simultaneously wondered why he looked upset and the light bulb went off.

I let a wide smile pull at my lips --  not something I have to force, but more a more inner emotion allowed to break through my exterior -- and grin at the child waiting for my attention. 

As he registers the change in expression on my face, a joyful grin and giggle escape him, and he comes to me saying "Huggy, huggy" with the unadulterated zeal that only small children can embody. I hug him tightly and tell him how much I love him and thank him for the hug, and he's back to asking me for something, pulling me towards the kitchen.

I think of how much better he's doing recently, as he learns more words and we better understand him, but I can't help thinking that the more conscientious effort on my part to smile at him, to soften my lines and allow what's inside peek out instead of just looking at him blankly is changing our dynamic as well. 

Because I remember being a child, looking at what I slowly came to understand to be just a blank face, and taking it personally, so very personally. And he is his mother's son in so many unanticipated ways, which means I need to tread lightly with him, because he will pick up on the details that other children won't, and he will always turn to himself for understanding before considering it doesn't concern him at all.

In some ways, I could kick myself for taking this long to get it, but in others, I'm just glad I figured it out this quickly. I can stop the cycle of chronic bitch face and save both of us from a lot of years of unnecessary strife and friction due to misunderstanding.

Now if I could only go back and reassure little Me of the same thing.