Utterly enervated, I assumed the seven-mile stare out the passenger window of my van. Minutes earlier my family and I had pulled into a gas station. My son, in prime "I didn't know that would happen" fourteen year old form, had hopped out of the van, grabbed the pump handle, whipped it inside the open door, and emptied gasoline onto his eight year old sister's leg. She instantly began screaming that her skin was melting away. My son's voice rose above his sister's, loudly professing his ignorance regarding the presence of residual gas in the hose. My twelve-year-old daughter gingerly stepped over her screaming little sister and past her hollering big brother without so much as a pause. Everything about her adolescent girl body language said, "sucks to be you two, but not my problem". My husband just stared at the bizarre yet "there it is and it's my kids" scene that had erupted without warning, All he had wanted to do was to fill up the tank and get something caffeinated before we hit the highway. While I felt concern for my daughter, I knew her skin was not going to disintegrate. The critical aftermath of my son's unthinking action was that the interior of our van was now going to reek of gasoline...all the way to Wisconsin.
Ever since my first pregnancy, I developed a super sonic sense of smell. During each pregnancy it caused me to pretty much hate the scent of everything except Ivory soap and lemons. With the delivery of my last child, the intensity of scent aversion diminished, but it's still there and it's often the cause of some heated arguments. My older daughter, like many girls her age, loves the sprays and lotions from Bath and Body Works and Justice and whatever other store sells cloying artificial scents in pastel bottles. Their aromas make me physically ill and create an optimal catalyst for conflict.
"But MOM it smells GOOD! You are the only mom I know who doesn't like this stuff!"
"It is making my stomach churn. GET RID OF IT!"
"You are so unfair! Fine! Whatever!"
Even worse was attempting to breathe in our house during the weeks my son thought dousing himself with Axe would go undetected. The "Axe Period" was as close as I ever come to making my son sleep in the garage, right up there with the "Skunk Period" when he thought it would be interesting to get a skunk to actually spray so he could see it in action. Arguments over odors are fairly frequent. It's the burden that comes with the super power of super smell. I might save lives by sensing an electrical fire or bad meat before anyone else, but I am also ruining lives by banning the scent of Plumaria and Anarchy in our home.
Back to the gas station. I was angry with my son. Yes it was an accident, but since he became a teen-ager I have had way more "I didn't know that would happen" scenarios with him than I can count, some more serious than others. Following one such event he caught me off guard with "Okay, okay I get it! It was a stupid thing to do, but I didn't know that would happen! So just tell me now, what else don't I know? " I get pretty lawyer-like when my kids piss me off, firing questions at them, fully anticipating their responses. In this case though, I was not prepared for "tell me what else I don't know". He was actually waiting for me to respond.
I finally said "You've only been walking the earth for fourteen years. There is no way I could possibly tell you EVERYTHING you do not yet know. I can just TRY to impress upon you the importance of thinking things through and USING GOOD JUDGEMENT BEFORE YOU ACT!" Looking back at that moment, I wish I would have had the foresight to add "But for now, know that there is residual gasoline left in the hose at the gas station, so don't try to scare your sister by aiming it at her and squeezing the handle". In my defense, I just didn't know that would happen.
Back to the van. I grabbed the canister of wipes I keep in the car, tear off a bunch and start wiping down my daughter's leg. She screams at me "Mom! Is my skin going to burn off?!" Then at her brother "You are just so MEAN! I hate you! Go away!"
He counters just as loudly "It wasn't my fault! I'm sorry! I didn't know that would happen!" but he is also unsuccessfully stifling a laugh. The act was unintentional, but the spectacle of his sister freaking out is cracking him up.
My husband eyes are darting all over the place, as he asks, "What can I do?"
Still wiping my daughter's leg, I respond, "I'll deal with this. You just get the gas." I pull my daughter out of the car and start working on the floor and seat. There is gasoline on both. I wipe down what I can, but it's already sunk into the upholstery and carpet. The smell is making sick. For the umpteenth time over the last decade, my life flashes before my eyes and I wonder, how did I get here? Contrary to myth, raising kids is not always a rewarding experience. It's not always euphemistically "challenging", and it is quite often the very antithesis of fun. There are moments that are just out and out spirit killers and soul robbers, and you feel utterly defeated, a complete f-up of a parent, because surely a good parent would not raise kids who do stuff like this.
A few minutes later, with cold drinks and bags of salted things acting as a calming agent, everyone has put the "gas incident" behind them, everyone but me. The smell is just so strong. My son speaks. "Here Mom, I got you Pizza Combos." A teen-age boy's attempt at reconciliation.
My husband speaks. "Here Hon, I got you a Coke Zero." A grown man's attempt at distraction. I say nothing.
We pull out of the gas station and stop at a red light. This is where I am staring out the passenger window. I watch a middle-aged man navigating the busy intersection on a bike, his little boy behind him on a bike equipped with training wheels. Both are really struggling. The dad looks overheated, frustrated, fed up. I feel for him. He's having a "how did I get here" moment too. Then I notice his tee shirt and in the time it takes to read it, a half a second, my mood is instantly elevated. I need to connect with this dad before the light turns green. I quickly roll down my window. My kids, instinctively sensing that I am about to do something potentially embarrassing, yell in unison "MOM WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?"
I ignore them, stick my head out the window and call out, "Hey! Great shirt!"
The dad initially looks annoyed, but then sees in me a kindred spirit. He breaks into a big smile, pumps his fist into the air and shouts "Yes! Naked Raygun!" There it was. Two weary parents acknowledging the lives they had prior to kids.
The light turns green. The Naked Raygun dad turns his attention back to his son as my husband steers the van towards the entrance ramp to the highway. I'm now smiling. My son offers an apology in the form of a question, because I know he has absolutely zero interest in the answer, "So what's Naked Raygun?"
"A really great band that came out of Chicago." I was about to go further about how influential the band was. How through a job I had at the time I actually got to meet them and spend time in their practice space, but I had lost my son's attention at the word "band". He was just being polite in the wake of his most recent "I didn't know that would happen" episode. No matter. I had briefly reconnected with a part of me I had momentarily forgotten and now felt renewed.
I opened up my hand and looked at the small can of Ozium I had grabbed from under my seat. I had bought it a few weeks earlier to mask the vile smell of mildew in the van. A window had leaked during a rainstorm, soaking the carpet, giving rise to the pungent scent of Janitor's String Mop. In my hand was the means to minimize the gasoline smell, but I wanted my son to understand how thoughtless his actions were, and that they had lasting implications, on him and on the people around him. If I so quickly erased the aftermath of his poor judgment, what would he learn? He'd learn that he can do something really stupid and then I will step in and make it like it never happened. Sure that would be the easiest, the most comfortable thing for me to do, but it would be like cutting corners on rocket parts. I could be setting my son up for a true catastrophe down the road.
"Mom, I really am sorry about the gas. I was just goofing around. It stinks in here now. Is there any way to get rid of the smell? Squirt hand sanitizer on it or something?"
I tuck the Ozium away and aim the air conditioning vent at my face.
"No. There's nothing that can be done. You did a really stupid thing, and now we all have to live with the consequences."
"Sorry. I won't do that again, I promise. I just didn't know that would happen."
My son is at the front end of his teen-age years, and his sister is right behind him, and another behind her. There will be MANY "I didn't know that would happen" incidents in my future. I just hope fate places something like a dad wearing a cool band tee shirt in my path when those incidents happen. I think I am a better parent when I am reminded of a time before I was one.