i’d just pulled the sheets up toward my nose when, from the far end of the house, the ring rang. the little guy, from his bed across the hall, announced: “mom, your phone’s ringing.” i mumbled back, “i’m asleep. i don’t answer phones at all hours of the night.”
then the old black phone beside our bed rang. this time we answered.
it was the college kid. and at 10 o’clock on a sunday night, he decided he wanted to talk. needed to, is what it amounted to. and so, for most of an hour i lay there, flat on my back, holding the phone to my ear until wrists and elbows got stiff, got achy, so i’d rearrange the cradling of the little black box that connected me and my faraway boy.
after a while i started to notice that the sleeping lump beside me was doing just that: sleeping (or trying to, anyway). so i flipped back the sheets, hauled my tired self out of bed, and spent the next good hour curled in a chair in the college kid’s room, where he and i wound to the end of the list — the things that must be discussed at midnight on sunday, at the end of a very long weekend, at the end of a very long week.
it’s why i call this the most important job i will ever do.
it’s why, two days later, when i went to visit a dear dear friend who’s just had a new baby, her first, i marveled as i watched her besotted in love with her sweet breathing, gurgling, occasionally squeaking baby. i saw that look in her eyes. i felt the wonderment. i recognized right away how, suddenly, this little nine-pound wad of hunger and doze, it consumes you. you might keep charts of which breast is on tap, and for how many minutes the little guy sucked. back in the day, i did so with paper and pen, and a safety pin i tried to remember to move from one nursing bra strap to the other; my dear friend clicked her uber-smartphone, and there the breast-feeding app kept time for her, tracked which side was which, and how long he was at it, the guzzler.
in that glorious meld of weaving her old life into her new one, i smiled as i looked at the piles there on her bed. she was propped up with pillows, the baby reclined on the niftiest nursing contraption i’d ever seen (looked not unlike a lifesaving flotation device, except one with pocket for tissues and strap for a binky, i guess, all wrapped in quaint baby cloth). but all around her were the sorts of deep reads for which my friend lives. she’d been reading aloud pages of the atlantic monthly and “road song,” natalie kusz’s heart-wrenching nonfiction tale of trauma and loss and redemption, because what newborn baby isn’t lulled by the sounds of his mama’s voice, and why not start the literary steeping on day one of his life?
i stayed as long as i could, till the light from the west slanted in, slanted down, slanted thinner. watching her, listening to her and husband recount twist after turn in her 38-hour labor, i couldn’t help but be lulled back in time, to the start of this ancient and timeless arc, the whole-body immersion into motherhood.
by miracle of accumulated years, i suddenly find myself 20 years away from my start. and thus, whirling inside me, i had the breathtaking knowledge of why those first hours and days are so vitally sealed. why, as mothers, we practically need to be vacuum-swooped down the vast and cavernous tunnel of love that is the adventure of a lifetime, that is cradling a life, soon taking it by the hand, and eventually letting it go, to soar and to dip and to dive all on its own. and to be there, on the end of the line, when the ring rings at 10 in the night. or 11. or 1. or beyond.
to fall madly in love, to feel fingers the size of a matchstick curl and cling to your flesh, to come to know the particular snorts and the grunts of that loaf of blanket and fuzz strapped across your chest, across the place where your hearts pound in echo. to spend your waking hours clocking his input and output, it is all a part of the alchemy that seals mother to child. and keeps us in for the long haul.
what else could so fixate us, could so call out to that seed buried deep in our hearts, the one that’s been waiting since the day we were born, we were cradled, to turn and do the same, to return the grace of generation upon generation? to mother a child through all the tight spots and twists that tumble onto the miles and miles from nursing pillow to college diploma, and each day ever after.
if it wasn’t for hearts hermetically-sealed from the get-go how else could we stick with this uncharted program? who’d sign up for a road trip that, at any turn, might find you splayed on the bathroom floor at 3 in the morning when a little guy’s retching his guts out, or when the bath needs to be drawn while the birds warble their morning song because the mercury on the thermometer reads 105 and you’re scared out of your wits, and willing yourself to not crumble?
what else would keep you upright when the phone rings and the next thing you know strangers are talking of airlifts and ambulances and necks that are broken in multiple places? or keep your knees from buckling when your lanky kid is lying there in the ICU half-buried under a web of IV tubes and oxygen lines running this way and that, and you count as many as six different needles shoved under the skin of his banged-up and bleeding forearms?
motherhood is not for the faint of heart, and the heart needs to triple in size, so it seems, to pack in the requisite vast and infinite wisdom — and patience and sheer calculation and imagination and stamina and worry and second-guessing and, yes, full-throttle pangs of remorse when we get it wrong, time after time.
and motherhood holds no escape clause. we’re in it for keeps. which is why we sometimes find ourselves mumbling aloud, as we shake fist to the heavens and ask why-oh-why we are once again searching the house for the shoe/the soccer ball/the library book that somehow escaped from its last-known location. or driving umpteen hundred miles to drop off precious load at the side of some far-flung soccer field. or sending a note to the teacher, asking if maybe we could meet after school, to find out why this fourth-grade math is so very mind-bending.
but what other adventure known to humankind might find you taking a little child by the hand, just after a soggy afternoon’s rain, and heading out the door in search of worms that might need rescue, plucked up from the unforgiving concrete sidewalk and tenderly placed in the oozy garden? or have you witnessing, from the very front row, the moment when mixed-up alphabet letters on a page suddenly rearrange themselves into equations called words, and the child is off and reading?
oh, it takes love, all right. deep-veined love. the sort that re-routes all the wires inside you. that literally re-scripts your dreams, gives center stage to the newest dearest soul in your life, one you suddenly realize you can’t live without. and for the first time ever, perhaps, you know what it feels like to know that you’d throw yourself, in an instant, between a car or a train or a boulder barreling toward that babe who looks in your eyes as if his life depends on you.
because, truly, it does.
that old snapshot above is one of my favorites, from the very day the little one came home from the hospital, and his big brother held high the umbrella, the first of many shieldings from the elements.
i am wholly aware that parenthood isn’t everyone’s path, and that every single one of us finds our passion one way or another, and devotes the better parts of our hearts to that very something. i simply turn to motherhood because for me it’s been the keeper of all the most essential lessons, and the blessing that’s lifted my heart to the heavens.
what’s the thing that’s brought your life its most essential truths?