Small Things

I have been thinking lately about beetles and other invertebrates, those which E.O. Wilson called “the small things that rule the world,” changing the very ground that we walk on, the air that we breathe. More than 350,000 species of beetles alone and this one’s blue, the death-feigning beetle, the one my son and I stare at in a zoo over the weekend. We are six hours from home and it is a different kind of holiday than the one last July we spent digging in the dirt in front of a cabin, sliding off a pontoon into water. Still, even then we were watching insects, dragonflies, small river bluets fluttering and flying and landing on reeds, their wings like the leaded glass windows of our first home. We practiced being still, crouched, our toes in the sand near the shore, while nearby other children splashed in the water with their father, his own parents watching from the pontoon.

I thought then, as I think now, that there is a thing I have always admired about insects, the way they are always doing, for wasn’t that how I had learned to love, through the doing of things, someone’s favorite drink kept on a shelf in the fridge, meals I plated, tables I washed, all the shirts I had folded? Hadn’t I learned to say I cared by making room, by making time, by showing up? Hadn’t I learned to love with my hands?

Behind the glass the beetle moves through soil, climbs steadily over branch, such a small thing and still so sure of its purpose. I wanted mine to be more than just a boy’s mother, though I loved being that. I wanted to tell a story in which, independent of relation, as simply a person, I had not learned to feel nearly invisible. I wanted to be seen. But this is not my story, not yet anyway.

The week before the trip I tell my counselor I’ve been having nightmares again. In them, I dream that I have cancer and it is him I call to tell. They leave me shaken, the dreams. Not because of the cancer, but because I had picked up the phone.

“What do you think would happen if you did call him?” she asks.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, “because I can’t.”

Because awake me makes different choices than dream me does. Because wasn’t that what had bothered me most at my husband’s funeral, all the people showing up at the end of things who hadn’t been there for any of the rest? Wasn’t that what I had asked for from him? Someone to show up for the ordinary? A cup of coffee once a month. I had asked for a cup of coffee once a month. To have mattered enough for 30 minutes.

In the scale of all things, my heart is but small, all its wants small, this want, small. Billions of hearts across the earth beat. Billions of lungs take breath. Billions of legs walk and work and billions of arms hold children and eat dinner and just exist.

But still, when I watch the beetles moving over ground, such small things down there in the dirt, I remember that even the smallest of things can change the world. Billions of hearts. What a small thing it would have taken not to damage mine.

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