“Mom!” Charlie called down to me from the playroom. “Tomorrow is sports day at school and I need you to wash my football shirt because I wore it today. But I need it tomorrow!” And sure enough, I looked up the stairs at my 7-year old and saw he was wearing his beloved Tom Brady jersey.
In that moment, I cursed Tom Brady. And his wife, Gi-ZELLE.
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, futility is defined as a useless act or gesture. As I climbed the stairs to begin the laundry, I started to tick-tick-tick off all of the futile acts or gestures in my life, things like washing jerseys two days in a row and making beds that people sleep in twelve hours later and flushing toilets no one else bothers to flush.
Exercise. For the amount of exercising I do, I am nowhere near Giselle’s long tan limbs or hollowed cheekbones. (This may or may not have something to do with my ice cream consumption.)
Arguing with a toddler about the merits of wearing underwear, cleaning dark green marker off the playroom walls. Packing and unpacking and packing the backpacks for school. Sweeping. Clipping finger nails that grow at the speed of light and putting the caps back on oozing tubes of toothpaste.
And laundry. Laundry is perhaps the most futile job there is. These people need to wear clothes every day, and they can can’t even wear the same pair of jeans a couple of times the way you and I might, because although you gave them their futile bath last night, they got futil-y dirty again today and have soup stains all down the front of themselves.
Which brings me to food. My kids love to eat, and every time I say this to someone who has the ubiquitous non-eater sitting at their table, they say how jealous they are, they ask how we got our kids to eat. I always tell them the same thing: enjoy it. Enjoy the meals you don’t have to make, the snacks you don’t have to prepare, the dishes that don’t need washing. Enjoy your sparkling kitchen that you don’t have to make a futile effort to clean nine million hundred times a day, just in time for some small person to whine “I’m hungry!”
As I dug through the hamper and piled clothes into the blue laundry basket, I thought of a conversation I had with Joe a few years ago. We were lying in bed and talking about his career and how much he loves dentistry. He turned to me, and in the soft lamplight of our bedroom, he said, “Some days I just feel like I need to do more, like I’m meant to do something even bigger.”
Friends of mine who read this blog are chuckling right now, giggling to themselves as they remember the way I described this discussion to them over lunch later that week, described how I rose up out of bed, all faded baggy tank top and indignation and roared even bigger? I made three dozen heart-shaped jello jigglers this afternoon for Rose’s preschool class tomorrow! (In certain circles, this particular dialogue is referred to as The Great Jiggler Conversation.)
Want to know what futility’s second cousin is? Resentment. (Bitterness is also hanging off of a limb on futility’s family tree like an overripe coconut, as is anger.)
Oh, sure, you could make the argument that I’m filling their healthy bodies with nourishment and growing their brains with knowledge and creating happy memories with heart-shaped gelatin. But some days it doesn’t feel that way. Some days I feel like the hamster scampering on the requisite wheel; running and running with nowhere to go and lots of clothes to fold.
I walked into our bedroom to collect a load of towels, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something resting on my pillow. And it was this note from five-year old Rose:
I walked downstairs and got online and looked up the opposite of futility, the antonym of useless. It said meaningful, worthwhile, something of value. Not futile. Holding my daughter’s note in my hand, I started to think about all the not futile things I do; actions and deeds which mean a great deal to me. Preparing unusual dishes like kale chips for my kids who love to eat, and choosing the roundest red apples for my pink girl’s snack. Telling them I love you I love you Mommy loves you every single day.
Folding Henry’s favorite blue dinosaur pajamas so they keep his delightfully chubby body warm all night long. Quizzing Joey on his multiplication tables and seeing the slow grin spread across his face when he masters a tricky one. Reading Pippi Longstocking at the dinner table and playing Boggle on a snowy Sunday morning.
Sit-ups. (There. I said it. I like doing sit-ups.)
Sitting at my computer in the growing darkness of late afternoon, I thought back to when Jack was a silent toddler, how everything we did to try and draw words from this quiet boy felt futile, empty, useless. The sign language and the singsong voice and the exaggerated gestures, all done more please cup dada bird. Telling him over and over and over again look in my eyes Jack look at me look at me.
For days and weeks and months, those small acts of signing and singing and begging for eye contact felt pointless and ineffective. But in fact, they were teeny-tiny steps towards something important; towards helping our blue-eyed son find his voice. Slowly, like a baby bird peeking out from a delicate eggshell, he began to speak. We started to win our little boy over from autism’s firm hold, first with simple words like duck and cookie, then short phrases like bird fly and truck is big. Then, at long last, mama.
And I remember the very moment my two-year old Jack said mama for the first time like it was yesterday; the way his fine blonde hair felt under my fingertips as I washed him for the thousandth time in our worn white bathtub. In my mind, I can hear his tentative voice echo off the tiled walls in the bathroom mama water mama. Recalling this memory nearly seven years later, I thought of a new definition of futility. My definition.
Futility: small acts and gestures and tasks you repeat over and over again. At times, they will feel mind-numbing and soul-crushing and relentless. They will feel hopeless. But one day, you will wake up and realize there is purpose behind the cooking and the laundry and the nail-clipping. Behind the you can do this math sheet Jack and listen to me look at me hear me. You will see the rewards that have really been there all along; children who love and laugh and eat. Neat, trim fingernails, and a boy who resists the confines of his spectrum disorder and says mama out loud.
And with that, I got up from my computer, walked back upstairs, and put Charlie’s jersey in the washer.