The worn, wooden front gate slammed shut behind us. He flailed wildly in my arms. “No, no, no,” he screamed and kicked. He began to slap my head. “No,” he hit my skull and even with the hat on, without the buffer of a full head of hair, I felt the full force of Ian’s tiny mallet-hand on my scalp. But I didn’t move my head away. I let him hit me. I let this happen.
Now four months into chemo treatment for breast cancer, going to the preschool to pick him up gave me purpose. Ian was signed up for aftercare three days a week, with friends alternating the other two work days. Sometimes Kyle met me for additional help getting our rambunctious, often extremely tired child out of the classroom. Finding his coat and bag and lunchbox required many trips across the floor of the open plan classroom, parents like canoes passing each other in a square-shaped beige and brown lake, fishing for discarded sweaters and wet, sandy shoes.
Ian didn’t want to put his jacket on. It was late October. I was in layers, my gray cabled hat barely kept my bald head warm enough. “No!” he said again, as deeply defiant as an old man.
The well-meaning preschool teacher wanted to follow through with our request. “Ian, you have to put your jacket on. Here, I can help you.” The happy lilt of her voice only made his arms stiff as logs. She couldn’t see this as we see it. She couldn’t see that he’s already gone over the edge, we’ve all gone far over the edge. Our family is in free fall.
Ian was still light enough to pick up. I lifted him and hugged him tightly, restraining him with sheer love. I didn’t have the physical strength to tie my own shoes most days. The force of his anger was stronger than me and I couldn’t hold him for long. He started to slip through the loop of my arms with every kick, shirt riding up, exposing his belly. Kyle saw that he was about to get free and left the passenger side door open to turn towards us. He grabbed Ian before he could fall.
“Don’t you ever hit your mother,” Kyle yelled while wrangling him into his car seat. But we both knew he was too young to understand the nature of his tantrum, the wrongness of striking his sick mother.
Seat belts were made for these moments, I thought, relieved to have the tantrum restrained. But the belt couldn’t hold back the rage behind us, between all of us.
Ani Tascian is a VONA alum and holds an MFA in Non Fiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. You can find other published essays at Citron Review, Cahoodadoodaling, Bird’s Thumb, Buddhist Poetry Review and MARY, A New Journal of Writing.
Tracey Colla is mixed media artist based in Philadelphia. View more of her work here.