when the phone rings in the night
nowhere in the manual, the one they forgot to send home from the baby hospital, does it mention that 5-year-olds on a road trip for the very first time might wake up in the middle of the night, in some faraway motel room, and start breathing in short little puff-puff-puffs that further in the manual might be diagnosed as hyperventilating.
well, children don’t follow manuals, forgotten or otherwise.
children, when they’re non-fictional, toss and turn, according to the one who dialed the phone in the middle of the night last night, until finally they call out in the darkness, proclaim that their head is hot, and their tummy rumbly, and they want to talk to their mommy.
and so, at 2:38 a.m., the phone rings.
your dream, in which you are chasing baby chickens around your city-girl friend’s apartment–hmm, paging dr. freud, paging dr. freud–is interrupted.
you are, in those murky first few seconds of a middle-of-a-dream phone call, scrambling the synapses in your brain like some combination bicycle lock where the numbers must line up in just the right sequence, trying to figure out, of all the possible things that could be wrong, just what one it is that is precipitating someone to call you when the clock quite clearly is flashing 2-3-8, with a colon there between the 2 and the 3.
then, you hear it. you hear the pathetic little whimpering, muffled through the static of a cell phone, a cell phone far away.
but you are the mother of that whimper, and you’d know it anywhere. you know it now. even in the dark. even bounced from earth to heaven, back to earth, or however it is those dang phones get the whimper to your ear.
you get a minute or two of explaining, deep background from the dialer, and then the whimperer takes phone in hand and holds it back no longer.
suddenly it is 2:42 a.m. and you are hearing no words really, just the sound of sadness. supreme sadness. supreme i-feel-crummy-and-i-am-in-a-comfort-suite-in-the-middle-of-south-bend-indiana.
and you, now wide awake like a mama bear who hears a rustle outside her cave, you are ministering to what ails him, but really you are talking to a silver plastic box, a box with little holes punched in it.
you are not cheek-to-soft-pink-cheek with the little one you love. you are not stroking his brow, the way you always do, the way your mother did to you.
you are doing the very best you can but there are two hours, at least, of city and cornfields between you and the so-sad boy.
and even if you could, even if you jumped in the car right then and there, it would be nuts to head out for the motel just off the interstate, in the middle of a strip mall with a starbucks planted right next door.
so you pretend you are right there. you use your words to fill in the empty space between you and the phone and him. you are clear, and you are full of promise. you get him to slow his breathing, to get a little sleep, and then come home. he whimpers yes, to all of the above.
but, like waves of tummy flipping that will not be quelled, the calls keep coming. updates from there at the faraway sickbed. 2:53, they are moving to the couch. 3:07, it was better now it’s worse.
then, at last, at 3:19, a call comes, telling you the little guy is fast asleep. on the couch. wet washcloth to his head.
and you too, the caller says, should try to sleep.
but you’re a mother, and you’ve been roused, and it might not be so easy to get back to chasing chickens there in your dreams.
the last thing you expected when you laid your head on that old pillow was that you’d be shaken from your sleep by a little boy all knotted in his sheets 110 miles away.
but, really, that’s the part of being a mama that takes your breath away. it is a roller coaster ride without a seat belt. it’s full of yelps and whoops, and heaven only knows what’s around the bend.
it’s messy business. it is groping in the dark. fumbling for the phone. it is, since it comes without instructions, making it up as you go. bumping into walls, but somehow putting one foot in front of the other. at least on a good day.
and the whole time, we are led by one fat muscle that will not stop. will not stop its lub-dub squeezing, letting go.
we mother by heart. and whatever graces are stocked in the pantry by the MotherGod who keeps us from running out of what we need, before we can get back to the store where they sell these things.
we mother, too, with history. lying there, fully awake, i begin to connect the dots. i think of just a week ago, in a tent in the woods, the same little guy was crying for his room. i remember how the summer before first grade can be a little bumpy.
i know, because this is a bend i’ve been around before, that there will be bumps. and even a little guy who, by day, can play a sword-wielding super hero, by night can put down the shield, can bare his tender side.
i think back to all the nights when, as a baby, he went to sleep nestled between his mama and his papa. i think that world will always be the safest, surest thing to his little tiny soul.
and i understand how his world feels topsy-turvy when he’s with his papa but not his mama. and he’s in some air-conditioned motel room. and not the little room at the top of the stairs where the lake breeze blows in.
and so i wait for the sound of the car pulling up to the curb, so i can wrap him in. so i can hold him in my arms and make his world not so wobbly anymore.
is that not the most amazing super power? and i can do it without a sword.
that’s what happens when the phone rings before the light comes.
tell your middle-of-the-night phone-call stories. do you remember longing for your mama in the middle of the night in some faraway unknown bed? do you remember being longed for? how did you make it right? how did you set the world back to where it didn’t feel so wobbly?
and a most blessed birthday to the two girls who both were born to two of my dearest longest-lasting friends. sweet veronika and molly, happy happy happy. to the woods of vermont, and the wilds of chicago, i send the sweetest birthday wishes.