The Anatomy of a Meltdown

It was a dark and sort of stormy night. There were still miles to go and promises to keep. Who knew when anyone in my house would get to sleep? My better half was living it up in some Mid-Atlantic state. Okay, he was away on business and he had dinner alone at the hotel bar. But I was still driving the kids around at 8:30 at night and he wasn’t.

Anna had a tutoring session for an SAT subject test. There is no rest for the college applicant or her mother. Adam was at home with a chicken roasting in the oven. As I was rushing out of the house, I yelled up to his room that he had to turn off the oven as soon as the timer went off. “Don’t fall asleep,” I warned. In hindsight, the reason why I thought that it was sensible to rely on a sleep-deprived teen-ager to turn off the oven eludes me.

Back on the road, Anna asked if we could stop for Starbucks.

“You really didn’t ask me that question,” I snapped at her.
“I’ll run in and I’ll get you something too,” said my seemingly accommodating daughter.
I must have given her such a look at the stop light, that all she said was, “The light’s green.”

I dropped Anna off and planned to nap in the car. Buzz, buzz went my ancient BlackBerry. A text message from my road warrior. Adam left phone off the hook? Call goes straight to voice mail. Not answering his cell either. I was sure that Adam had fallen asleep, that the house was about to go up in flames.

I interrupted Anna’s lesson and said I had to go home right away. I started the car and the orange light came on. I had less than two gallons of gas. I didn’t care. I had to rescue my son, salvage the house. Ten minutes later I was panting and wild-eyed in the kitchen. The oven was off. Adam was working on his math homework on the dining room table. “You’ve got to be more trusting, Mom,” he said without looking up.

I ran out again to pick up Anna and what do you know—there was that darn orange light again. It was even brighter. I stopped to fill up, which put me back about ten minutes. My cell rang. “Everything okay? Ken asked oh so gently. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” I said. I think I was sputtering.

Only fifteen minutes late for Anna. I can multi-task without breaking a sweat, I said to myself. Anna didn’t quite see it my way. She got in the car and fiddled with the heat until her arm got in the way of the gearshift. “Stop it,” I yelled.

“I’m cold,” she yelled back.

That’s what we said to each other, but if there were thought balloons floating over our heads, the subtext would go something like this:

Me: Why don’t you know how to drive yet? I’m so tired of hauling you around.

Anna: Don’t you understand I’ve been up since six in the morning and played a soccer game where I scored a goal? But how would you know that? You were late for the game too.

I told her that she had broken one of my father’s cardinal rules of driving—Don’t mess with the driver. She told me not to talk to her. That was it. I pulled over, handed her the car keys and proclaimed that I was walking the couple of miles back home.

I walked for about 15 minutes. Every time a car passed by I hoped it was Anna coming to pick me up. What was I thinking? That a kid who doesn’t like to drive, won’t ever drive without her permit, would illegally take the wheel and come looking for me at night. By the time I had figured this out, I had walked pretty far. And my BlackBerry was in the car.

Then I noticed a police cruiser coming down the other side of the street. I flagged down the officer. “I need a ride,” I blurted out. “My 17 year-old daughter and I had a fight and I left her in the car.”

The policeman asked me my daughter’s age three times. “Get in the back,” he said. Have you ever been in the back of a police car? There’s no upholstery and the windows have bars. I deserved to be treated like a criminal, I thought.

We pulled up to my car. The officer pointed out that he had to let me out because the patrol car locked from the inside. “It’s for prisoners, you know.” Then he peered into my car with a flashlight to make sure Anna was really 17 and not 7.

She told the officer she was okay. She had been crying and handed me my phone. “I can’t get a flight out tonight,” Ken said. “Maybe I can catch a train.” He thought he was still speaking to Anna.

What came over me? I guess that I dug myself so deep into a hole that I couldn’t climb out. And I was scared and cold and exhausted. But I’m the grownup. I should always know better.

Anna and I patched things up later that night. I swore to her I would never do something that stupid again. The next day she told me that she and her friends were cracking up over our little mishap. “Everyone said the story would find its way into your column.”

Kids these days are so smart.