it’s the promise i made, long long ago. the deepest surest promise i ever made.
before he was even a bump in my belly, before anyone in the world knew he was there. in the moment i first knew, i tumbled out these words: dear God, let me wrap this blessed life in a cocoon of pure, unbroken love. let me be the shield. let this child know only undiluted full-force light.
it wouldn’t be long till i found out how porous that cocoon might be. i couldn’t keep the 105-degree fevers from spiking. couldn’t even take away the sting of the shots he got at 2-months-old, when the nurse turned to me and icily offered: “what are you all nervous for?”
i surely couldn’t keep the chipmunk from darting before his bike’s front wheel on that autumn afternoon when he hurled across the handle bars, and landed in an unconscious heap on the side of the woodsy trail. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking in his neck, on that october day when he was all alone and all of 13. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking straight across his thigh just 10 months after that. nor stop the crushing commentary from the camp counselor who saw his staggered gait as reason for ridicule.
in the nearly 22 and a half years since i whispered that promise (i’d whispered it a full nine months before he was born), i’ve not veered, not lost my most determined grip.
there are rare few promises you make in life that define you. my promise to my firstborn was one.
and now, at the end of his senior year of college, in the final hours before he turns in the more than 150 pages he’s been typing, editing, eating-drinking-sleeping, i am once again putting muscle to my words. his senior thesis, a compendium of deep thinking and determined scholarship, will soon be walked into a white new england house, one with columns stretched across its porch. it’s the poli sci department, and the thesis, a probing examination of the intersection — and entanglement — of law and religion, is due in just five days. at 3 p.m., eastern time. (not that i’m watching the clock.)
i’ll not be breathing much this weekend. the thousand miles between us will, once again, have collapsed into the paper-thin space between two hearts that once beat just micrometers apart.
i’ve realized (because i tend to think that way) this might be the final push of all the school years — from preschool when i nervously watched him try to make a friend in the blocks corner, to third grade when he carried off to school the landmark chicago stadium he’d struggled to build out of cardboard, poster paint and glue (lots and lots of glue), to the junior year of high school with its tension-building, sleep-disrupting 20-page AP-english theme (oh, that seems so innocently succinct, now looking back from the distance of 150-plus footnoted pages), to the long-distance breath-holding as every college semester’s close brought with it a slate of deadlines and exams and will-he-make-it doubts, to now, the mountain climb of all type-written mountain climbs.
and so i’ll enter this final round of breath-holding, of leaping every time the phone rings, of literally falling asleep and awaking with that boy’s welfare on my mind, with all the mama-dedication it deserves.
the truest truth is that as i’ve reached out my hand to guide my boy up steep climbs, through narrow passageways, i’m the one who’s found my way. he’s plunged me into life in ways that, until he came along, i might have skirted. if i’ve lived my life one drop more deeply, more authentically, it’s because he was at my side. he was asking me — without words — to be the best of who i might be. to not flinch. to not be afraid. or even if i was, to walk forward anyway.
that’s what mamas do, after all. that’s the unspoken pact. it’s at the front line of whatever life hurls our child’s way, where we are truly put to the test. it doesn’t mean we’ll keep at bay the brokenness. it doesn’t mean we’ll stanch the tears. it means we’ll wear it all, as if our own. it means we’ll be there on the phone whispering, “i believe” till the cows come home. it means that when we’re dead asleep and the phone jangles us awake, we’ll take the call, shudder off the somnolence and stay on the line till daylight erases darkness.
in this latest round, it means we’ll read and re-read, check for misplaced commas, look up “constitution” in the world book encyclopedia, grasping to understand this free-exercise clause that seems to be absorbing so much of our kid’s attention.
if that’s what it takes. whatever it takes.
day after day, year upon year.
this is the one job for which there’s no check-out clock. our hours on the factory floor do not end.
oh, we might get long spells of reprieve, when all is humming along as you’d hope it would. but then, duty calls. stakes are high, and the fire bell clangs. so you leap into the nearest phone booth, and you whip on your mama cape. you toe the line. you’ve made a vow, and you’re sticking to it. you’re here for the long haul, and the long haul is now.
so much is stitched into every single saga. unspoken volumes. volumes that swell your heart. volumes that teach and re-teach just what it means to love as you would be loved.
it’s holy gospel, this mothering as mountain climb. he’s nearly there, the kid i love. i can see the summit, and so can he. i’ve one last weekend to stay the course. to promise him he’ll make it, and to let out a holy roar when, at last, he does.
that’s me and my sweet boy, walking hand in hand, a long, long time ago. i nearly melt studying the snapshots, the one just above, and the one up high where you can practically feel my straining to implant some sort of mama inoculation on his irish-jewish cheek. it’s what we aim to do, aim most mightily: to embrace, protect, infuse with all that’s good, infuse with the best of what we’ve got and all we didn’t even know we had to offer.
do you have a tale to tell about someone loving you across the finish line, no matter what the line?
and happy blessed birthday to two of my life’s dearest oldest friends who today and tomorrow tack on another year. love you, divine miss M, and sweet sweet paula, angel of my dreams….
Best wishes on the coming graduation. My favorite Mom memory is getting a call at 11 p.m. from the boy in grad school asking me to look in a specific college notebook (which, of course, I’d saved, still in his room) for a particular computer algorithm. With my husband’s help (I couldn’t decipher one computer algorithm from another), I actually found it, took it to Kinko’s to copy and then e-mailed it to him that night. I considered that the ne plus ultra of motherly might. What’s better is that he still remembers this.
oh, mary mary! that is GLORIOUS!!!! i’d call that coming to the rescue — LEAPING to the rescue — in another language no less. my brain cells spin at the mere thought of what you did: found the notebook (needle in haystack I), found said algorithm in said notebook (needles in haystacks II through infinity!). this wins a big fat blue ribbon in my book. heck, all i’m doing is plain old comma plucking…..
brava to you! (and to him for remembering!!!!!)
What a beautiful essay, Barbara. I love how deeply you love your dear boy. All best wishes to him as he completes his senior thesis! It sounds marvelous. I’m sure he’ll knock it out of the park.
These photographs of the two of you – such treasures. And I love thinking of you in your mama cape! It’s so wonderfully evident that you have relished your role as mama. I have, too, every single blessed moment. xoxoxo
the most fun i had this morning was turning through the pages of the actual photo albums — remember those, the clear plastic-paged volumes in which we slipped snapshots, some of which i’m sure will fade, be drained of color over time. it’s true, i’m unabashedly punch-drunk aglow from being that boy’s mama. and you, my friend, are about to be the mother of the groom. i can only imagine…..
Powerful stuff for me reading this today. Like you, my mama cape has been on this week for my college senior. His heart is hurting and mine hurts for him. Wishing your college boy all the best in this final push.
those mama capes are never put out of service. i’m only half breathing today……i know, i know: i’m supposed to fasten my oxygen mask first, but sometimes we falter……
sending light to your aching hearts over there….xoxo
I, too, love the image of a mama cape. I still whip out mine from time to time … and my oldest is 42! Sometimes I wistfully remember when the problems were simpler, though heart-wrenching at the time. Was it easier to manage the cape then?
those mama capes NEVER go to mothballs!!! i am thinking we must build our mama muscles as we go, so those early problems might seem just as overwhelming in the moment they occur. it’s the way our arm muscles build so that from the birth of an 8-pound newborn to the strapping 25-pound toddler we wear on our hip we’ve hardly noticed the incremental growth. we get stronger, in the same way, to bear the weight of the problems that befall our children, and thus us…..(i was up till 3 last night, decked out in full mama cape, so if i don’t make sense this morning, that’s why……)
So true … thank goodness for that love-driven strength training, which takes commitment and persistence!
Oh, I’m so late! By now you’ve been able to slip off your mama cape and get it dry-cleaned to be ready for next time. I hope it went well and that you can relax enough to have a glorious Easter and Passover.