Tiger Cub in the Museum

a story that ends with everything that you need to know about parenting

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We moved from Austin to Minneapolis when I was six months pregnant with our first child, Leo, who is now a junior in college. He was born the day before Thanksgiving as the snow began to fall.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to find indoor escapes to survive the dark arctic months with a new baby, and as a recent transplant, a limited friend list.

We lived in a neighborhood called the Wedge, in a second floor duplex near the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The museum immediately became my go-to place to take Leo.  I’ve always loved art museums, as much, if not more, for the building and their sublime interior spaces.

The Institute is a stunning merger of the original neoclassical building with several minimalistic expansions. All visitors pass through a huge open entrance that connects the historic with the modern.

The space is a perfect balance of clean lines, beautiful wide-stepped staircases, and an enormous wall of windows showcasing the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. Because it’s the transitional area between the galleries, there’s a collage of works from various cultures and periods. The normal museum rules don’t apply. It’s designed as a place to meet and talk.

As Leo got older and began walking we sometimes would never leave this entrance. For hours, I would follow him up and down the stairs. He would run around the protected statutes and pause to watch people across the street in the park.

Leo was like a tiger cub, cute and playful when he was baby, but then his need for stimulation became almost insatiable. By the time he was two it was becoming apparent that he needed to be out in the wild with his big paws and newfound strength and volition.

I can remember exactly what he was wearing on the day that he outgrew the museum: red thick sweatpants, a horizontally striped shirt of primary colors, and wide square-looking velcro sneakers with the same bright pattern.

Matthew and I had taken Leo to the Institute on a cranky Sunday morning. It had been snowing for days and the museum was particularly quiet. Leo was fidgety but started his usual routine of climbing the stairs while singing and talking to himself.

I noticed he had a look that I didn’t quite recognize. He wandered over toward the entrance into the modern wing. Matthew and I were leaning against the wall of windows. I looked over and immediately identified what previously I could not name. In real time, my tiger cub transformed into a bull.

This is when my memory goes into slow motion.

Leo returned my stare and I swear his nostrils flared. He started running full speed, with all the pent-up frustration that he brought with him to the museum. Hands out straight in front of him, he was heading toward the wall length canvas on the other side of the room. I don’t remember the artist but it was one of those towering Rothko-esque pieces. The visual that remains in my mind is of a candy apple red rectangle baiting the approaching bull.

Matthew and I pierced the silence with our screaming pleas for him to stop, but our feet felt paralyzed. The guard in the corner was equally stuck to the floor, his mouth open. The three of us glanced at each other and then back at Leo on his determined course.

He never slowed down, not for a moment.  He was a blur of color bolting across the room toward the perfect stillness of the equally colorful canvas. We all knew that he was going to make contact. My pulse quickened, with the certainty that our financial ruin would begin that morning.

Fear gave me magnifying vision that zoomed in on his chubby, sweaty toddler hands as they hit the painting about four inches from the bottom. I saw the canvas give and then shut my eyes. The contact was so powerful that Leo was knocked back and staggered, but the bull did not fall.

Matthew, the guard, and I had finally unglued our feet and were kneeling next to Leo, scanning the painting for damage.

Nothing.

No holes. No indentations. No grimy hand prints. I was waiting for alarms to ring and an army of museum secret service to swarm, all the while worrying that the painting might still explode or fall off the wall in an aftershock.

Nothing.

The guard half-heartedly admonished us and let us leave without filing a report or even taking our names. There was an unspoken mutual relief at our miraculous good fortune.

It’s hard to believe that moment was twenty years ago. It has become the anchoring reference point for our extensive, and growing, list of ridiculous parenting situations. What we didn’t know at the time was that the incident at museum captured everything we ever needed to know about parenting but took two decades to learn.

Each child comes into this world with a unique temperament and plan of their own.

Control is an illusion.

Your children will do and say things that that you can never prepare for or fully understand.

The best we can do as parents is to shout out directions from the sidelines–sometimes your kids will hear you, but most often not.

You have to be willing to improvise when helping to pick up the pieces, even when you’re scared.

Mercifully, most of the close calls are just that, and there’s the gift of another day with another chance to get it right.

Attachment

Georgia is having minor surgery tomorrow morning to remove two chalzia, plural form of chalazion. Everyone in our family thinks the name sounds like a delicious treat.  It’s not. It’s a stye gone bad. The stye appeared during the first week of her middle school career. Over the next two months it grew to the size of a dime. She tried to cover it with her bangs and concealer but nothing really stopped the questions about the thing on her eye.

We went to experts and tried drops, creams and endless heated compresses made of socks filled with dried peas – anything to avoid surgery. After two months it ruptured – gross – and partially healed. The thing re-grouped, came back more tenacious, and brought a chalazion along with it. Her pediatric ophthalmologist, the smartest, spunkiest, polly-pocket of a woman, decided that surgery was the only option left.

This is a minor operation but Georgia is still going to be under general anesthesia. The paper work spells out all the what-if’s and then asks for my signature.  A signature that gives permission for others to do their best with my full knowledge that scary things can happen.

Sign.

I circle around at the Buddhist notion of non-attachment.  Parenting is an ultimate practice exercise. Attachment implies there is an attacher and a separate object of attachment, be it a thing, person, or feeling. Non-attachment is not unkind or joyless. The Buddha taught that separation was an illusion, that there was only unity. In this oneness there can be no attachment, the source of all suffering. My grabby mind can understand this concept but it’s a struggle.

My first night of being a parent I had a lucid dream that is the level measurer of my attachments, particularly with my kids. We had just moved to Minneapolis a few months before I gave birth to Leo. We hadn’t made friends yet and family would come later.  There was not one visitor. It was just me, Matthew and Leo and the quiet of the snowfall. We fell asleep together in the same room. In my dream I saw myself floating in a starry peaceful universe, Earth below. My torso was elongated and my arms and legs stretched in opposite directions. I could see the twinkling lights through my body as if it were a window. I remember feeling a continuity – no beginning or end.

At the time I didn’t know to call it non-attachment. I have tried to paint my dream on canvas and write what I felt but my efforts never truly translate. I conjure up the image in my mind’s eye at times I want to clutch to my children with my pride, anger, fear, conditional love. I remember my role. I am portal, a guide. They are not mine, we are one.

Today I sign the papers and pay fees for the facility, doctors and nurses to care for my sweet girl.  My Georgia who giggles and flaps her arms when given laughing gas at the dentist. I worry and wonder about her reaction to the anesthesia. I have an attachment to fear, for sure. When tomorrow morning comes I will sit and try to remember that feeling of floating, of unity – wait and trust.

I took the photo this evening at the Austin Zen Center.