THE DEEP END OF LIFE

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The New Year is knocking on the front door. I can see him through the peephole with a handful of “bills past due” in his left hand and a wad of cash in the other. Every time I let him in, he knocks that priceless lamp by the door over or spills grape juice on the carpet.

I hesitate. Old Year is comfortable, relaxing on the couch with some luke-warm hot chocolate, re-reading list of unfinished projects. He’s comfortable in the same sort of way that a known misery trumps the unknown. Or comfortable like oft-worn pair of pants with a hole in the bum, and anyone looking too closely can see your undies.

Hopefully, nobody’s looking too closely.

Old Year hasn’t been all bad, though. For example, I finished writing a book called The Deep End Of Life.

It isn’t about dragons, spaceships, or a lonely thief trying feed his kids. In some ways it is a very ordinary book. It’s about an 11-year-old girl coping with her parents’ divorce. It’s about what sometimes happens to kids when their parents break up. It isn’t an autobiography by any stretch of the imagination, but it is real.

I’ve mentioned this before, but 2016 was a difficult year for me, and it was hard for my kids as well. It was the year their parents got divorced.

Sometime during the fall of 2016, while somewhat innocently browsing for internet video games, my oldest, a boy, came across an un-closed browser tab for “divorce attorneys.” He tried to cover up the screen and click away before the younger siblings saw, but they knew right away something was up.

Not how you want your kids to find out there’s trouble in paradise.

That led to some difficult, but important discussions. As parents, we offered to take them to counseling, and mentioned that it had been helpful for us in bringing healing and understanding. Only the youngest seemed open to the idea, but she—if I remember correctly—marched into the elementary school counselor’s office and demanded a session, without parental assistance.

Around that time, the kids were doing year-round swimming. When I picked them up from practice one day, a coach informed me that the youngest (same kid) had spent “a lot of time” in the bathroom. “I don’t like swim practice,” she said later, and she admitted skipping practice to “do gymnastics” on the locker room benches.

That moment stuck with me—a fourth grader swimming dutifully (mostly) through the winter months, when maybe she had bigger dreams, and it came back to me a few months later.

One evening, the youngest walks into the living room, whips out a piece of college-ruled paper, and accosts the oldest.

“Let’s talk,” she says.

He mumbles something that might, under duress, constitute an agreement.

I grin, because I like listening in on their private conversations, when I can. True, I’m only three feet away, but I’m also washing dishes. Chores (or anyone doing them) are completely invisible to kids. As long as you don’t make any noise or alter your facial expressions when they say outrageous things, they don’t know you’re actually there.

Over the counter I can see the paper she’s holding, and I realize—sadly—that this isn’t going to be one of the juicy ones.  The college-ruled notebook paper has “book titles” written at the top. I can’t, for the life of me, recognize any of them.

“Tell me if any of these are good,” she demands of her older brother.

It takes me a minute to catch on, but apparently they’ve done this before, and none of the titles on her list are real. What she’s written is a bunch of test-case titles to see if her big, mature, well-read junior high brother seems interested in any of them. She’s not even particularly motivated to do anything with the information. She just wants to know.

And for an eighth-grader, he’s remarkably patient. “Yeah, that one’s pretty good,” he says, occasionally. Or he just shakes his head when they don’t meet his fancy.

It’s a fun game, initiated by a ten-year-old. Most of them are acceptable middle-grade mock-up titles, but there’s only one I remember now: The Deep End Of Life.

The moment she read it, I was transported from the kitchen, out of the present, away from the months of co-parenting and breadwinning, and aches and worries that parents feel. For a moment, I was there, watching my daughter dancing across that locker room bench, finding her own peace of mind in a world that had just imploded. And I think of that same kid, striding powerfully into the elementary school front office demanding to meet with the school counselor, a trained mental health professional.

The Deep End of Life is a title written by a fourth-grader. There are plenty of people who could come up with a better one. But it stunned me, reminded me of how little of their lives I actually see. It pulled back the curtain for a moment on the drama of childhood, the drama of fourth grade.

I wanted to catch that image and put it in a bottle. Some authors write the book they wish they’d had growing up. I wrote the book I wish my kids had had. It’s okay—and sometimes even fun—to get help when you’re swimming in the deep end.  

With the day job in the mix, it took me a few years to finish. It helped that my commute in 2020 has been considerably shorter.

Thanks for that, at least, Old Year.

The New Year knocks again, louder this time. Opening that door will bring all sorts of problems. But it might bring some good things too. I look at Old Year, who is still lounging on the couch, eating smelly leftovers. “Yeah,” I say. “Get off the couch.”

He stands up and stretches, makes his way to the front door. His jeans are faded and a pocket seam has burst. There’s a bit of plaid boxer peeking through. He always lingers at the end.

“Undies are showing again,” I say, to encourage him onward.

He turns to look at me, hand on the doorknob. “Did you finish writing another book?”

“Yeah.”

“Do some cool things with your kids?”

“Yeah.”

“Then stop looking at my undies.”

#

Every year is challenging. This year I’m thankful for friends, family, and a finishing another manuscript.

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