My neighbor’s dog is barking. He is crying for attention. He’s just like any other creature in the world, needing love, needing acceptance. He is hot in summer, cold in winter. The sweetest personality and the most adoring brown eyes belie his inner turmoil of neglect. He has human people, a mother and a daughter. The mother doesn't understand what it means to have another living being depend on her. Outside the most basic needs for survival, food, water she is clueless. Sure, he won’t go hungry, not in his belly. His hunger pangs are far deeper. The body can survive having only its basic needs meet. The spirit cannot.
It doesn't leave a lot of hope for the emotional health of herself or her child. It is a mirror image. The little girl, five years old, needs love and acceptance, too. Like the dog, she acts out, digging holes in which to hide, drawing comfort from the earth. She paws under the fence, sniffing around for possible escape. Look! It is there, a crack in the gate, a tiny space of broken fence a body can fit through if it’s flexible, if it’s sole intention is getting out, getting away. Run to beat the devil. The dog gets out sometimes, most times. He barks and barks and paws and scratches and digs his way out, over, through the obstacles set before him. Once he is out he runs, not for the nearest tree or grassy field, but to the door of his person’s house, eager to get inside where he thinks he will find love. The little girl follows suit. She uses plastic pails and toy shovels to dig, always digging, digging for buried treasure, cool dirt under her fingernails and in her wild, curly hair, strawberry blond like her mother’s. What does she hope to find in the dark brown mud?
She screams at her mother. She hits her mother. Her mother doesn't know what to do, doesn't understand her daughter’s resentment. Isn't she doing everything she can? Isn't she doing everything she knows how? She has a job now. She doesn't have to have court ordered alcohol tests anymore, that’s something. She even has a couple of friends, she says. And a man who said she can move in with him, if she wants to, his wife won’t mind, bring your daughter! Is he real or another illusion of her own need to escape, to run away from the self-imposed ties that bind her?
Like her dog, like her daughter, like many unwilling mothers, she feels trapped. She doesn't have the tools to be a mother. She doesn't understand all the rules. She aches for her own lost childhood, her own absent-but-there mother. So she drinks. The little girl is too young for such an escape. She must face the ugly truth of her captivity every day, with sober eyes. Sometimes it is too much to bear and she misbehaves. She digs holes in the neighbor’s yard, my yard. She turns water hoses onto the neighbor’s porch, throws wet dirt on their door, leaving tiny muddy hand prints, cries for help. She shits in their bushes.
What becomes of the unmothered girls? They grow up and go out to become mothers, wives, co-workers. They drink coffee and wait in traffic. They walk among us. They are us. Some of them go to therapy and work out the pain of their childhoods. They go to workshops and read books. They cry into pillows and scream the primal alarm of tragic loss into a cold and crisp desert valley, echoes of a life not lived. Still others do none of this. They get pregnant without meaning to; they do drugs to drown the voice inside demanding more, more. They seek the same kind of relationships that never nurtured them. They only know the seeking, never the fulfillment.
They become like caged animals, like dogs confined to the back yard, the back burner, an ornament of a pastoral existence they can only dream of. They snarl and claw and bite if they have to, if they feel threatened, if anyone suggests they deserve more. Like the mother next door who gets defensive and angry when I offer to check on her dog for her. He seemed really thirsty the other day, I say. He’s fine, she says. I am happy to help, I say. I don’t need help, she says. I don’t believe it. I don’t think she believes it either.