My heart aches for Angela

“I don’t want to do the show. I’m too embarrassed.”

“I don’t like M&Ms,” Angela said.
  • “I don’t like M&Ms,” Angela said.

Angela makes me mad. Some days my four-year-old daughter seems determined to fulfill her birth-order destiny as the “difficult middle child.” Other days, my heart hurts so badly for her I think I’ll suffocate.

Two Mondays ago, I had to take 17-month-old Johnny to the doctor to get his stitches out. The previous Sunday, Johnny had pitched himself headfirst out of our van and sliced his head on the edge of the van door. Monday afternoon at 12:30, I dropped Angela at preschool. I drove Johnny and three-year-old Lucy home. I read them a few books, then straightened up the kitchen while they played in the family room.

At 2:00, we drove to the doctor’s office. Johnny fell asleep in his car seat. Lucy gazed out the window and sang songs. As we wound through La Costa Meadows and down the hill to Encinitas, Lucy segued from a folk song about Paul Bunyan to “Oklahoma” to “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” from The Lion King. Because Lucy doesn’t understand all of the words, she sometimes mangles lyrics. When she sang the Lion King song, instead of starting out, “I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware,” she sang, “I’m gonna be a mighty king, sken-uh-bees aware.”

At the doctor, Lucy sat quietly and read a book while Dr. Gross snipped the Frankenstein stitches from Johnny’s head. A quick peek in Johnny’s ears revealed an ear infection left over from a cold the week before. Doctor Gross prescribed an antibiotic. Lucy smiled and said “good-bye” when Dr. Gross left the room.

Back in the car, Johnny fussed and screamed and strained to get out of his car seat. Lucy examined the stickers the receptionist had given us on the way out. “Lucy, you’ve been so good,” I hollered over Johnny’s screams, “I’m going to get you a treat at Vons when we drop off Johnny’s prescription.”

Lucy smiled at my reflection in the rearview mirror. “Thanks, Mommy,” she said. After a moment, Johnny quieted down and Lucy added, “I love you. Mommy. I love Johnny and Rebecca and Angela and Daddy. I love my whole family.”

“We love you, too,” I answered.

“I want to get mini-M&Ms.”

Lucy stood with me in line at the pharmacy. She picked out her candy and waited while I paid. In the car on the way to get Angela, Lucy ate a few M&Ms then closed the container. “Mommy,” she said, “I’m going to save some of my M&Ms for Angela and Rebecca. I really love Angela and Rebecca.” “That’s very sweet of you, Lucy.” My heart swelled.

At school, Lucy ran into Angela’s classroom. She clutched the M&Ms to her chest. “Angela,” Lucy told her sister breathlessly, “I got some M&Ms for a treat from Mommy, but you and Rebecca can have some.”

“I don’t like M&Ms,” Angela said and’ walked past Lucy without looking at her.

Lucy’s shoulders fell. She followed Angela to the car. “I’m sorry, Lucy,” I said loud enough for Angela to hear. “It was really sweet and unselfish of you to want to share your candy with Angela. 1 bet Rebecca will like some.”

Lucy brightened a little. Angela climbed into the backseat, fastened her seat belt, and stared straight ahead like a sullen teenager.

The sullen teenager was nowhere to be seen the following afternoon at gymnastics class. For the past year, Angela and Rebecca have taken gymnastics at a gym near our home in San Marcos. Neither of them is particularly gifted. When they began the fall session in September, the coaches put Rebecca, who is almost seven, in a level one, or beginner, class. Angela got stuck with the youngest class, a motley group of ill-behaved toddlers. A few weeks into the session, Angela’s coach moved her into Rebecca’s group. “She’s bored with the little kids,” the coach explained. “She’s the only one who pays attention and tries to do the skills.”

Angela did fine in level one. Angela and Rebecca loved being in the same group — until last week when the girls started rehearsing for the Holiday Extravaganza. Every December, the gym puts on a show. The different classes learn routines and perform for parents and friends. Rebecca learned her routine quickly. I watched her glide smoothly through the cartwheels and lunges and pirouettes. The other girls watched Rebecca to see what to do.

Angela seemed lost. The youngest girl in the group, she couldn’t remember the sequence and was always about six steps behind the others. Looking through the glass in the observation room, I saw Angela’s face grow sad. Her arms hung at the sides. Her coach tried to encourage her. Angela fell further behind.

At the end of class, Angela walked out of the gym. She didn’t say a word until we got to the car. Then she collapsed in my arms and began to sob. “I don’t want to do the show,” she managed to say. “I’m too embarrassed.”

“It’s okay, sweetie,” I said and rocked her back and forth. “We’ll try again next week. But you don’t have to do the show if you don’t want to.”

Angela cried harder before her sobs subsided. In the darkened car, I wiped Angela’s tears from her cheeks, gave her one last squeeze, buckled her seat belt, and drove my little girl home.

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