I look around, my head in a swivel, to see what unfortunate soul has done something to annoy my daughter.
"Well?" she snorts, glossy French-tipped nails drumming the table.
Ah, she's glaring at me, her eyes full of blue flame. I've done it again, I guess. An involuntary sigh, an innocent explusion of breath has escaped from my lips, from deep inside my chest. I've become famous in my family circle for this sigh, to whom it means much more than an exhalation of carbon dioxide. To my daughters and sons this sigh equals negative commentary on their daily clothing choices, their looks at any given moment, their ambition or lack of thereof-- their worth weighed and measured by my single breath.
The first memory I have of being on trial for my sigh occurred the night my oldest son was born. Never mind the fact that I had just given birth for the first time, that my new-mother hormones raged along with my adrenalin, or that the ragged tear of the almost episiotomy burned all the way to my brain. The important issue that night was that my sighing betrayed me as I watched my mother-in-law surpervise my husband's touching, holding, comforting of the child he'd fathered but was meeting for the first time.
"Don't sigh at me, Jill!" she snarled, her face contorting with dislike.
I saw how it was to be between us, then, and the long process of making her invisible began.
After that, I didn't think too much about the sigh, until my children became teenagers. They resurrected the charge against me, and it has remained a constant litany. Did they inherit this sigh-detecting gene from their grandmother, who was never quite sure about me?
I decided to ask my sister about it, thinking that, as a mother and one of two people left on this earth who love me unconditionally, she would debunk the sigh as adolescent angst. "You do sigh a lot," she said instead.
So, I stand guilty as charged, although I believe in my innocence. My defense is this: I admit that I sigh, but I don't plan to sigh, and I swear, oh I do swear, that I don't sigh in judgment of anyone. I think, instead of the personal condemnation my children believe them to be, my sighs are a safety valve, a little of life's build-up hissing out slowly here and there, my own despair leaking into the atmosphere.
My secret despair is not so well kept if it automatically makes itself heard. How can I explain it to them, that this black mess I carry within me has nothing to do with them? I pile things on top of it--happy moments--but the vapors ooze out around them, moving up my windpipe and out through my mouth. Images swirl in the despair--my father stuffing a sponge into my mother's mouth while she kicked at him from the floor--my brother's pillowed head in the cheap gray coffin, wax plugs almost stopping the trickle of blood from the entrance and exit wounds--the sheriff's deputy's quick rap at my door, his large hands bearing a thick envelope of foreclosure --my mother's open-mouthed last gasp for breath as she died alone, the sight of her face molded by rigor mortis seared into my retinas--the simple understanding that life is a series of losses, that nothing is certain, that what you know to be true never is. My sighs are my mea culpa, my gasp for air.
"Mom?" she asks a bit snottily, tossing her bangs back from her face.
"Oh, no, did I do it again?" I tease her, passing the sigh off with a smile.
There are things better left unsaid.