I do not remember childhood Sunday nights with great fondness. Unlike most girls who spent this day rifling through the closet in search of the perfect outfit to make themselves look ten years older and drive the cutest boy in class crazy, I simply got ready to go crazy. Yes, Sunday night was the eve of another panic stricken school morning kicking off with Manic Monday followed by Traumatic Tuesday, Worrisome Wednesday, Trembling Thursday and Frenzied Friday. The weekend provided a much needed siesta from the anxiety that paralyzed my body with irrational fear but by early evening on Sunday that began to change. Blame it on Sam Champion.
Then a local weatherman with an obnoxiously cheerful outlook on life, the jet stream and barometric pressure, Sam would begin his Sunday weather report with the Back to School forecast. I didn't care if Sam called for brilliant sunshine or blistering monsoon though I must confess the animated sun on the television screen shown walking past the School Crossing sign happily carrying his school books was particularly terrifying. Still I knew that the weather called not for rain but pain, a forecast foreshadowing a river of tears streaming down my cheeks, agonizingly long periods of hyperventilating trying desperately to catch my breath, deep regret that I couldn't be like other kids who could go to school even if they hated it.
I never hated school. Until the phobia made my heart skip many beats, dare I say I liked school. I had friends. Some I wished were more than friends like Genene, Danielle, Wendy and Gina but like Jimmy Carter, I lusted in my heart. I got good grades. I liked knowing I was smart. But once the panic attacks started the only thing I knew was I needed to find a way to survive.
I would think to myself, Why couldn't it snow? Yes, a blistering April snow storm! A storm so fierce, it knocks out power lines solely within a three block radius from our apartment to my junior high school. That would be awesome! I could make a snowman or lie in a bed of packed powder bundled safely in my bubble coat, at least until it's time to watch the Mets telecast, a Monday matinee from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The fantasy would comfort me if but only for a second.
"Tara, Honey stop watching the news. It's so depressing", Mom called out from the kitchen. "Help me set the table."
There was one aspect of Sunday night I absolutely craved; macaroni smothered in meat gravy and ricotta cheese with meatballs on the side. It hardly mattered that we had a box of Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies waiting for dessert; I'd still have two or three helpings of rigatoni. In fact if I didn't go for seconds, Mom would start obsessing.
"Tara does this taste right to you?"
"Yeah it's great. Why?"
"I don't know. I don't think… Don't eat anymore!" Mom opting to toss both plates into the garbage and start from scratch was hardly unprecedented on any night but especially not when Monday morning loomed. On Sunday nights there was an unspoken need to make dinner perfect. Food was a welcome distraction. Too welcome.
As delicious as Mom's so-called Irish sauce was, with every forkful I would feel my flabby stomach bloat with dread. My mind's eye was already envisioning a portion of the morning ritual; I would find myself squeezing my big boned frame onto the window pane, poking my head out, attempting to breathe in the city air. Thanks to Sam Champion I knew the air would be cold and damp, unseasonably humid, causing the sweat on my brow to fall into my tears. Humidity would not make breathing any easier. Mom would be in the kitchen, on the phone with someone from her office, making yet another excuse why she needed to come to work late. Perhaps she would recycle the one about the toilet backing up or my ride to school running behind schedule; certainly not the truth, that her daughter is a school phobic basket case. Having a psycho for a child doesn't exactly endear you to your boss. Once I'd hear her hang up the phone I could start to inhale, more like gasp, then exhale, less an actual breath than a choking cough. I'd take what I could get.
"Tara! Get away from the window!" Though blinded by her tears, she would frantically wrap her arms around me, tugging me out from the windowpane into the living room, into perceived safety. "Don't ever do that! Don't you know I'd die if anything ever happened to you?" Times like this, I always deemed it appropriate to withhold information; like that she almost knocked me out onto the pavement. Often times I would feel faint, my legs giving out under me. Mom would lead me to the couch and sprint back into the kitchen returning with a paper bag, what most kids used for school lunch. For me, it became a necessary tool of the trade.
"But… can't… late… work… Mom… sorry."
"Work can wait. You can't. Breathe in."
I'd cover my mouth with the open bag trying to repeat the breathing exercises I learned in therapy. But isn't the bag supposed to fill with air? , I'd think. Why is there no air? Where is the air! My eyes, wet with tears, started burning. The room started to spin. It is as if someone pressed mute on the television remote control. Everything became silent.
"Let me show you again", the words I read off Mom's quivering lips. The bag always worked for her, blowing up like a balloon, folding back down. Blowing up, folding down. But instead of calming me, it made me feel inadequate, a burden Mom shouldn't have to bear. Episodes likes this made me wonder why she put up with this morning after morning, week after week.
"OK honey it's alright. It'll be alright. Just stay home today, OK?" With those words the tension in my body would melt away. She would give me a reassuring hug and I'd trick myself into believing that all was right with the world. The phobic demon was gone albeit for a few hours. "I'll call school from work It'll be OK. God when will it be OK?"
God only knew. Or did He really? This was one of the questions I could never bring myself to ask while sitting in the pews of St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church listening to the priest give his Sunday sermon. Other best left unasked questions included "Why is Jesus always white?", "Why do the priests get to finish the Blood of Christ left in the chalice?" and "Why is Old Testament God so cranky?" Honestly if God were really this all-knowing, all-powerful guy, why couldn't he throw me a bone and fix me? I was, for the most part, a good Catholic girl, faithfully attending mass every Sunday. Sure I liked Genene, Danielle, Wendy and Gina and yes I didn't go to confession as often as I should but being told to recite three Hail Mary's for saying words like damn or friggin' seemed pointless. Who knows what I'd have to chant for liking girls.
But drifting in and out of consciousness during the priest's boring homily, I often reconsidered my position. Maybe that explained His indifference. Maybe if I recited every prayer handed down to me in the confessional I would be cured. It made sense. I always felt calm, serene in church. So did Mom. First off, it had air conditioning. You can't beat AC. Second, I took strange comfort in how dramatic mass could be. If the priest sensed he was losing his congregation, he would start yelling about the mystery of faith. Suddenly the homily wasn't so humdrum. And then there were the mobsters, reveling in their role as donation collectors not once but twice during Sunday service, as if that guaranteed a one way ticket to the heavenly gates regardless of who they whacked the night before.
Still my favorite part of mass was communion. Watching the priest in his stylish yet sensible shoes perform the sacrament then offer me the Body and Blood of Christ filled me with such hope and warmth. Well, the wine provided the warmth and a fleeting lightness upon returning to my seat. I could do this, I'd pray. I could conquer this thing, whatever this thing is.
And then the mass ended. Mom and I exchanged hellos outside with the priest and one of the Italian donation collectors who lived on our block before we headed home.
"That was a lovely service", Mom said as if trying to convince herself.
"Yep." And that was it, the first one word response of the day. Yes, it was definitely Sunday.
As bedtime neared, my throat was sore and dry. The muscles in my face, arms and legs were unyielding. My jaws, locked and clenched, gave my round cheeks definition, desirable in anorexic models but not in a 12 year old girl scared for her life.
Mom sipped her late night cup of coffee while tucking me in visibly troubled by my curt responses to her standard litany of questions. A tell tale sign of the morning fun to come.
"Are you alright?"
"Let's not think about tomorrow, OK?"
"Sweet dreams. I love you."
I'd hug her and smile, ashamed to verbally return the sentiment. If I truly loved my mother, then why was I putting her through this, watching her age years in a single day? Why couldn't I conquer this thing, whatever this thing was? Why did the Big Guy let His Son suffer for our sins? Why couldn't it snow tomorrow morning? Why…
Seconds later, the alarm clock shocked my system. 6:30AM. Monday morning. I can hear Sam Champion delighting in the sunshine through my thin walls. My knees are buckling but I have to pee. I can hardly stand. The room is spinning. My hands are clammy. My throat is parched, drying out, starting to close. I can't breathe. I start to cough, to choke. I hear Mom pounce up off the living room couch.
"OK honey…It's OK… Calm down… Mommy loves you… It's gonna be alright."
6:34AM. God, raise that chalice of yours. Here's to the start of another phobic week
Copyright 2009, Tara Meehan. © This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.
Tara Meehan's feature writing has appeared in a multitude of print and online publications. In 2006, Tara wrote, produced and directed the short film Conversationally Challenged, a parody of the cell phone culture. The film took home Selected Short honors at the Reno Film Festival. Formerly a member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and the Writer’s Guild of America Short Radio Drama Committee, Tara remains affiliated with various writing organizations. She is an independent consultant on the subject of school phobia serving as moderator for local meetups and events sharing her own experiences with parents and children.