Nana Upstairs

My son has been back from California since Saturday evening. While I could write about what I’ve been up to during my nine days of solitude, what I would rather write about is what happened when I read my son his bedtime stories tonight. I was on the hunt for something “new” to read. I found two books, one a 1971 copy of The Three Little Pigs illustrated by Don Madden that remains my favorite version of the folktale if only because it was the one from my childhood. We read The Three Little Pigs first. The second book was of more vague familiarity. I knew it for its illustrations but I couldn’t have told you what it’s about, only that my maternal grandmother had once read it to me. I did not realize at the time that I was setting myself up for an emotional meltdown of unprecedented proportions.
The second book was the original 1973 print of Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie de Paola. I began to read to my son and flip through pages that transported me back to the earliest memories of my childhood. I thought it would be just another enjoyable bedtime story. Then, without warning… “‘Nana Upstairs died last night—” I heard myself choke, unable to finish the sentence. It was the first time in my life my words failed me and simply refused to come out. “‘What’s ‘died’?’ Tommy asked,” I attempted to push onward, my bottom lip a quivering mess. I broke down and began to sob uncontrollably between the words, pushing them with monumental effort past the knot in my throat.

My son was oblivious to my emotional state as perhaps I might have been to my grandmother’s when she read the very same book to me. I cannot remember my grandmother having teared up and the emotional weight of the book would have been lost on me at the time as it was surely lost on my son. I was completely unprepared to read this book to my son, but, even with my wife in the room, I finished it all the same, unsure if I could but feeling it’d be an insult to the author if I didn’t. As I read through metaphors of falling stars as kisses from Nana Upstairs, any composure I had been clinging to evaporated. I cried for what seemed an eternity and I realized no book had elicited an emotional response from me like that since the last time I finished reading Flowers for Algernon back in 2010 or 2011. Up until now, Flowers for Algernon was the only book that could destroy me so completely. Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is no Flowers for Algernon, but finding myself reading about loss and the death of a loved one like that to my little boy was a moment of overwhelming emotion that I don’t think I will ever forget. Even as he was already sound asleep, the tears were still rolling down my cheeks.
It occurred to me to cruelly put my mother in the same position and ask her to read this book to my son while I sit and observe. I doubt she remembers the book any better than I did and I suspect she’d transform into the very same blubbering mess. The only problem with this plan is that it’s guaranteed to backfire when her tears prove contagious and I make a damn fool of myself in front of my mother.

Only six days remain until my son goes to California with his mother and maternal grandparents. He’ll be there ten days. There are elements of it that excite me, but I am mostly dreading it. Without my son, I am an empty husk with no purpose, no direction, and no will to exist. I regret not going with him and I regret even more having approved of this trip at all. Sure, I could have bought a ticket for myself at a later date, but my wife’s uncle and his family will be going as well and I don’t think I want to be in a 1,666-sqft house with multiple families and but two toilets. I’ll say this though: If a single day elapses that I do not get a call from my wife so as to speak with my son, I will raise hell. If two days elapse, she can expect to see me on her family’s doorstep in Garden Grove, where I will proceed to collect my son and put him on the next flight to Denver.
Back in Colorado, assuming my wife gives me no trouble with the aforementioned calls, I will try to make the most of the ten days. My mother will be gone too. Since she won’t be needed for babysitting during that time, she decided to book a flight to South Carolina and leave her cat in my care. I cannot fathom why anyone would want to go to South Carolina, but I agreed to take care of her cat. As such, it’s just going to be my mother’s cat and me for ten days. In such solitude, it means triple-checking that I’ve locked doors and switched off the stove or oven and it means never setting foot outside the house even just to collect the mail without first ensuring I have my phone and keys on my person because there won’t be a soul in Colorado I can turn to if I get in trouble, which also makes me nervous about driving.
I still have a couple of sick days I have to use or lose by 24 February, a date which marks my third year with the company I work for. I might use one of them for one of the days I have to go into the office on 24 or 25 January and use one of my three virtual days for the fiscal quarter to work from home the other day. It’s a 22-mile drive to the office and, due to a slightly different route, a 24-mile drive home. That’s 92 miles that I don’t care to drive that particular week. It’s bad enough I have to drive my son, wife, and parents-in-law to and from the airport, as well as drive my mother to the airport on 19 January. That’s an 89.5-mile round-trip times three, or 268.5 miles. Aside from that, the plan is to just pick up a bunch of food from the grocery store and hunker down for the better part of ten days. I plan on eating a lot of steak and probably ordering a fair amount of Indian food.
Getting much of anything done with everyone else in the house is always a challenge, so there are some tasks on my to-do list that will need doing and keeping myself busy will help to take my mind off how much I am going to be missing my son. The rest of my time I’m not working or clearing my to-do list will be spent playing PC games, something I rarely ever get to do anymore. I still need to complete Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I’m presently at 58.25% completion. I’ve been a huge fan of the Tomb Raider games since the first 2013 reboot.
My wife has already been campaigning to take our son to Vietnam early next year and I finally gave her the first no yesterday evening. This is only the beginning. She will not relent until she either gets what she wants, which she won’t, or she threatens me with divorce, which, just like last time, only hurts her cause because there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell I’m letting a woman who constantly threatens me with divorce take my son 13,500 kilometers away to another country. She already guaranteed around this time last year that I will never allow that to happen. I trust my wife about as far as I can sling a grand piano. Even if she didn’t just kidnap my son, it would be a really bad look in any future divorce proceedings that my son went on an international trip without me for four or five weeks just as it’s a bad look for her that she left him with me for five weeks last year while she went to Vietnam anyway.
These ten days are going to be bad enough as it is. As a father who shares a closer bond with my son than he has with anyone else, I cannot even imagine the damage four or five weeks would do to the two of us. My son needs me as I need him. The fact that my wife either cannot see that or simply does not care speaks volumes. If it comes down to me living at my mother’s house for four or five weeks like last time, so be it. The truth is I often look back at last time with nostalgia.

Things are spiraling out of control much more rapidly than I ever anticipated and I think it has a lot to do with the frigid weather. January is the coldest month of the year in the Denver metropolitan area and, between December and the first days of January, we’ve had some deep freezes and some heavy snowfall. As it happens, three of the other four residents of my home had never seen snow before they set foot here and the coldest temperature on record in their hometown is 13.8°C, though it rarely ever falls below 21.1°C at the coldest time of day during the coldest time of year. Denver, meanwhile, is a place where temperatures can sink to as low as -34°C at their most extreme. In December and January, the average daily temperature is below freezing. It was -25°C at one point mere days ago, to say nothing of the accompanying windchill.
Now, my wife used to swear to me back in Vietnam that she loves the cold and she adores snow. It’s easy to say while watching snow fall on Hogwarts from a fucking jungle. It’s another thing entirely when you can’t feel your extremities and you have to actually drive in that shit. “No, you don’t love it,” I told her countless times. “You don’t know what it means to be cold.”
I’ve made her confess many times that she was at least wrong about that, but now not a single day goes by when I don’t hear her bitching about the cold or the snow as if she’s not preaching to the choir. I hate it too, but I’ve given up on complaining about it because she does enough complaining for the both of us times twenty and the last thing I want to do is encourage her. She has her mother for that. Her mother hates it here and the two of them fantasize daily about Southern California, or, as they call it, “Cali,” all while having no concept of how big California actually is or how preposterous a lot of their generalizations about California actually are. Can you imagine inviting someone into your home only for them to talk shit about your hometown every single day?
As temperatures drop, tensions rise. Today is my son’s third birthday. We celebrated it yesterday since both my wife and I were off. We took him to the Children’s Museum of Denver. I was not particularly enthusiastic about any part of it, but I did my best to make it as fun an experience for my son as possible. My mother went with us, too. What I remember most about it was my wife going straight back inside when we went out to use the museum’s communal sleds to slide down a snowy hill. She wanted no part in it and, honestly, it wasn’t even particularly cold for a January afternoon. There is no heat or cold that could keep me from being there on my son’s special day, but we’re talking about a woman who went to Vietnam for five weeks while I cared for our two-year-old son. Whatever pathetic excuse for love she feels for him is a candle next to my bonfire.
I was glad to be gone from that place though. I do not fare well in crowds or around children other than my own. Whatever discomfort my wife might have faced in the cold would have paled in comparison to the anxiety I was experiencing the whole time. Sometimes being a parent means doing things you might not like; in fact, that’s pretty much the majority of parenthood in a nutshell. Just don’t try to explain that to my wife. You’d make better use of your time talking to a brick wall.
Where things really deteriorated, however, was at the restaurant. It was either a late lunch or an early dinner. We went to a restaurant of my mother’s choice since I also owed her a restaurant meal and figured I’d kill two birds with one stone. I spent the first half of our meal taking care of my son while my wife flapped her jaw. She went on and on about California and about how she, her mother, and one of her aunts are planning on buying a house there. She talked at length and with complete nonchalance about relocating to California and working in California, all while apparently forgetting that my son and I were sitting right there or that she was talking to the mother of her husband and grandmother of her son. “It’s too bad you have a son and husband who live in Colorado,” I interjected. I had been growing increasingly agitated at her repeated implications to my own mother that she was planning on leaving me and taking my son away as if that’s a perfectly normal thing to discuss with one’s mother-in-law.
My mother has grown extremely close to my son, who is always asking to go to her house, a place where he clearly feels safe. I don’t think she appreciated what my wife was saying or the way she was saying it either. She seemed to take my interjection as her cue. I couldn’t tell you exactly what her words were, but she made it clear to my wife that my son is staying here and that she will use all her own financial resources to ensure that my wife has a “big fight” on her hands if she ever tries to remove him from Colorado prior to his eighteenth birthday. My wife burst into tears and our meal was ruined, but I felt so grateful to my mother. It was the first time anyone has spoken on my behalf in the past year that my wife has been relentlessly bullying and antagonizing me. On several occasions, she has even attempted to enlist my mother’s help to apply even more pressure to me for this or that because she cannot bear to not always get what she wants and it’s pretty evident my mother now sees my wife for the snake she is.
All I do anymore is in the interest of my son and what I get in return is my wife’s bottomless pit of hatred like a blowtorch in my face day after day after day and her whole fucking family trying to pile on top of me. Seeing her put in her place even just for a moment felt so good.