Aching Arms

I can name about three memories before 2nd grade. My brother Adam being born. Getting chased on the playground by some girls in kindergarten. And Santa Clause-gate, when innocence was stolen, dreams were shattered, and I realized that the exorbitant gift-giving Santa was now on a budget. I just don’t know what my kids remember. It all happened so fast. Normal and then nothing close to it. Of course they didn’t know things were different- life just was.

Tiffanni and I had only been dating a few months when she found out that her sister was pregnant. She got in the car and drove 400 miles to celebrate. When my nephew was born, she was there. Skipped school for a week. I get that babies are a big deal, she shopped for months leading up to the life entrance. But it surprised me that someone would shop that much for their own kid, let alone another’s.

With a backseat filled with toys, clothes, diapers, she debated getting her own carseat, and headed north for the baby event of the century.

It was another few months before I would ever see what the fuss was all about. Babies are cute and all, but they all look and act the same. I’m not sure they even have a personality until about age two- unless you count colic. And then they’re just jerks. We showed up and Tiff darted out of the car toward the house and by the time I drug all of the suitcases into the living room, she had my nephew cackling and making new noises that “we’ve never heard him make before.”

Tiffanni was magical with kids. She can still get a kid staring and smiling in Dairy Queen every time. I try to mimic her but I apparently tortured and burned stuffed animals at the stake in another life. Kids can sense innocence. This evolved intuition that discerns the difference between safety and danger manifests in a simple smile or a faint ignore. Tiff could make every kid laugh. Put them all at ease. She was made for children. Patient and kind. Which is why she worked with special needs kids for the first couple of years of our marriage while she attempted to finish school.

Tiffanni was diagnosed with Huntington’s in the fall of 2011. My intention was to live as full of lives for as long as we could, until circumstances inhibited us. I planned several trips, several getaways, and unplugged from as much noise as I could. Within three months her dad and I had to ask her to stop driving. It wasn’t really a request, not after she drove through the neighbors’ garage door with our kids in the backseat. We cried as we realized that this disease was demanding and unforgiving.

The following summer, I was out of town for the day when I got a phonecall from one of Tiff’s friends. “I don’t want to be a tattle-tale, but I just talked to Tiffanni and she told me that she feels better. She feels in control and is tired of sitting around the house. When we hung up she was getting the kids in the car to go to Sonic for happy hour.” I panicked. The last time she was driving could have been disastrous and now this. I quickly called her phone from two hours away and did my best calm voice when she answered.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Nothing, why?” I heard the distinct ring of the carkey in the ignition behind her voice. The kids laughing.

“Why does it sound like you’re in the car?”

“I’m not.”

“Tiffanni, I need you to listen to me. Please don’t drive with our kids. Please don’t drive. I know it’s not fair, but you can’t drive.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Ok, I’ll be home this evening.” I hung up and called her dad who was able to go over and help me settle the situation.

The last time she ever got into a driver’s seat was to take them to Sonic. And she didn’t even get out of the garage.

We’ve talked, the kids and I, a lot about what they remember. Brayden can’t remember a day that his mom was “normal”. He asked me one day, “Why did God make mom crazy?” Addyson and Carsyn can’t ever remember anything either. I’m sure it’s because at some point, the memory begins to jade their recall, stamping all memories with the filter of disease.

So I prompt them. I try to trigger thoughts. We talk about Christmas, which Tiffanni loved- putting the tree up in September. I remind them how she chased them around the house nearly every day. How she tickled them till they couldn’t breathe. How she carried them around on her hip so much that people commented on Tiff’s biceps regularly. How she dressed them up, made them costumes, did their hair, snuck their makeup. We’ve lost a lot.

I picked the kids up from school yesterday, a rare day that everyone came home at the same time. Of course they asked to go to Sonic for happy hour. We ordered slushies and limeaids and laughed and told stories. Addyson kept asking me to turn the music up and then reminded herself, “Oh, you want to talk.” My almost teenager.

In the middle of our break from life Carsyn got excited and said, “I remember mom checking me out of school. She came and got me and said, ‘My arms were just aching for you. I couldn’t bear to be without you anymore.’ And she took me to Sonic and then to play. Just us.”

Addyson screamed, “Me too! She said the same thing, her arms were just aching too much to let me stay in school.”

“You guys remember that?” And they nodded. “You were only four and five years old.”

“She did it a lot,” they told me. And I remembered. She kept one of the kids home from school every off day that she had. She couldn’t just take a break, or I suppose the kids were her break. My little truants.

My last memory of Sonic, filled with pain and fear, but Carsyn’s and Addyson’s filled with all that was good about their mom. Her aching arms, her contagious laugh, her simple love.