I was at least ten miles along when I realized my mistake.
I was supposed to go east, but in a distracted moment, I took the west ramp onto the freeway instead. It was a familiar route, one I traveled often, so it was awhile before I realized the exits I was flying past were all going in the wrong direction.
My stomach tightened as it occurred to me that a fairly quick 20-minute drive had instantly transformed into an hour-long ordeal. And we hadn’t even arrived yet.
I let out a very mature “AAAAUUUUUURRRGGGGHHHHH!” which naturally got the attention of my four-year-old son in the back seat.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” he asked. He was so excited for our destination, a local attraction to which we have season tickets.
“I went the wrong way,” I growled, as the dreary winter sky darkened another shade.
I wanted to turn around and go home. As usual, I had so much to do, and now I had a precious 40 minutes less to do it in.
But, of course, you can’t do that to a four year old. You can’t promise him something for days and then simply not follow through. So, fuming at myself, I veered off at the next exit to turn around.
“You went the wrong way? You’re lost? You lost our house?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, Mommy made a mistake,” I sighed, only half listening to him. In the middle of my own frustration, I didn’t register the fear in his voice.
“Mommy, I miss our house,” he said softly.
Finally hearing the break in his voice, I looked up to the rearview mirror to see his lips turned down into a frown, his chin quivering, and one giant tear forming in each eye.
I thought of the past 18 months.
Two-year-old Ryan asking why all his toys kept disappearing into boxes as he slept.
Snapping photos of him sitting in the front yard of our Phoenix home with our best friends–his godparents–as the movers loaded everything we owned into the biggest truck any of us had ever seen.
The way his daycare teachers, his friends, his backyard water table, his favorite diner–the one with the Mickey-shaped pancakes–were all there one day and gone the next.
I remembered the way our own stress rendered us unable to acknowledge his, made us say things like, “Kids are resilient; he’ll be fine,” as we changed not only the landscape of his life but the very structure of it.
From the desert to the East Coast. From just the three of us–my husband, Ryan and me–to living with my husband’s parents. From full-time daycare to staying home all day long.
I remembered the day I snuck away during naptime to begin to clean up the house we had finally purchased in my husband’s hometown after months of living with my in-laws. When I returned, sweaty and exhausted, my mother-in-law told me how distraught Ryan had been when he’d woken up and discovered I was gone.
“Mommy just went to the new house to do a little cleaning,” she had told him.
“But how will I ever get there? How will I ever find it?” he had wailed.
I thought about the way his behavior had deteriorated rapidly from normal toddler tantrums to discussions about child psychologists.
The time outs and the anger and the yelling. The ineffective sticker charts. The stranger who told me I needed to get control of my son.
I thought about all the conversations I had with his new preschool teachers. The books they recommended I read. The way, by the end of the school year, they would shrug at me with the same sort of defeated bewilderment that I felt deep inside.
We’d moved for him. So he could grow up near family. So he could know his grandparents and his cousins. So he could catch lightening bugs and jump into piles of leaves and build snowmen–just the way we had as kids.
When my husband and I moved, we moved back home. But when Ryan moved, he moved away from home.
We didn’t really consider that. He was old enough for awareness but not old enough for explanation, so we waited for the resilience to compensate.
It never did.
We’d been in our new home for more than a year, but that day in the car, there was still an instinctual part of him that knew that sometimes your home disappears and you never see it again.
The anger we’d been battling for the past year was really fear.
As I steered onto the ramp and headed east, I attempted to begin correcting my mistake. The mistake that was so much bigger than a wasted 40 minutes on a gloomy winter day.
“Oh Ryan, I didn’t lose our house! We just went off course for a bit; but we can fix that. We can always find our way back home.”
Meghan Moravcik Walbert is a freelance writer, wife and stay-at-home mom to a spirited little boy. Find more of her writing at Phase Three of Life.
Photo: Mariet Copic