dispatch from 02139 (in which most of what was learned this week came in the wee hours of the night, in the dark, uplit by glow of cellphone, and the voice on the other end of the line was the kid who’s taught me more than just about anyone else on the planet about what it means to love…)
long ago and far away, last sunday in fact, easter sunday, the piled-up collisions on the highway of my life seemed daunting, seemed as if i’d never find that skinny path between crunched fenders and broken glass, to ease myself to the side of the road, where i’d call 9-1-1, and see if blaring lights and roaring sirens came riding to my rescue.
(note to mother-in-law and all those who worry: all metaphor, no one really got hurt. not much anyway.)
there was, come to think of it, one case involving bodily injury, and that came, of course, because too often i forget to watch where i’m going. especially when i’m hurdling toward one of my sweet boys.
what happened is that the monday before easter, the first night of passover when the calendar was a bit more jammed than usual, i was dashing out of a lecture hall, because i’d just realized the school bus was disgorging my 11-year-old at the very moment i was leaving postwar fiction, and no one had reminded the boy to wait patiently on the stoop. i charged full throttle into a protruding (potentially decapitating) oak ledge (a big mother sucker, one i’ve since gone back and examined, and i’m talking two inches thick, 12-inches deep, cantilevered in thin air, jutting brazenly into the path of oncoming traffic).
i hit the darn thing straight on, as if a linebacker to quarterback’s helmet, only the parts of me that hit the former titanium-grade tree were those bones — sternum, clavicle and one or two ribs — that course across the upper chest, first line of defense against crushed lungs and heart and wind pipe.
ol’ wind got knocked right out of me, all right, and apparently, bones crunched too. as did my top back molar, which on impact somehow smashed and cracked into the tooth just below. so, for the next few weeks, i am spending too much time getting to know my lovely cambridge dentist. and because i’ve decided there’s not much to do in the cracked rib department, i am self-medicating with ibuprofen and watching the ugly chest bumps go down-down-down.
other than that, all the week’s collisions have been the sort that scramble up the heart and head. out of respect to all involved, all i can say on that is that my prayer list grew mightily in recent days. (and cure from breast cancer is among my prayers for a dear, dear friend.)
oh, there were the usual not-life-changing worries on the list: the sixth-grade math project (due today), the taped phone interview with one of the icons of the american feminist movement (yesterday), the newspaper assignment (due monday), the all-weekend narrative writing conference, and the cat who keeps forgetting that the rugs are rugs and not patches of grass thirsty for his fertilizations.
but the one who stretched my heart, and once again plunged me into the laboratory of what it means to really truly love, was my beautiful two-hours-away college kid.
i remain convinced that, more than anything else, i am on this planet to learn how to really deeply exquisitely love.
and from the moment my firstborn tumbled into my life, he has been my masterclass zen guide and professor.
the most essential truth, of all the truths i’ve learned so far: you don’t give up. ever. not when you’re bone-tired. not when the going gets really rough. not when you’re afraid to breathe. not when you really think you’re plumb outta solutions. or even make-shift stabs in the wilderness.
i vividly recall the first time that lesson crossed my sketchpad: i’d been home from the hospital with that little bundle of perfection for maybe one or two whole days. he was a hungry boy. he mewed and rustled in my arms, to make sure i always caught his drift.
i’d just finished a good hour or two of nursing, and then, hungry boy, he wanted more. well, it had been a long day already. one that had launched with little sleep, and one that barely allowed for spooning porridge to hungry lips (and the lips in this case were mine). but the sweet boy cried. all he wanted was the thing that i alone could give.
i remember, at precisely that moment, glancing at a window, a dark, mirror-like plate-glass plane shielding the abyss. i saw a frantic face in that window (mine). and i remember thinking, oh, now i understand how it is that overwhelmed mothers dump their newborns at the police precinct door. can’t i just take this bundled lump back to the land from whence he came? ask for refund. wipe my hands of all of it, and go merrily on my way? really, i don’t think i’m cut out for this round-the-clock unrelenting equation.
the temptation, i tell you, nearly flattened me.
but then, i plunked back down into the crushed pillows of the couch, yanked up my T-shirt, and attached babe to breast. i rode out the impulse to surrender, abandon ship, ditch it all and call in reinforcements.
and ever since, that’s been the bottomline of each and every mother-and-child encounter.
when you sign on, as i have, to life-long passage on the good ship motherhood, you are bound to find yourself in dark and murky waters now and then. it’s how life works. most especially in this day and digital age.
so the kid i love got hurt a few weeks back. all tied, it turns out, to when he broke his neck back in eighth grade. this time muscles spasmed. shot him through with pain. so bad he could barely breathe. and then the headaches came. pounding, unrelenting. two long weeks of unabated brain wedged inside a vice. or so it felt to him.
that makes it rather hard to read hundreds of pages, and harder still to sit through midterms. so, if you’re a kid who cares about not flunking out of college, you begin to panic.
and the worse it gets, the more you check in with that one soul on your list who’s shown herself to have a fairly bottomless bag of tricks.
thus, the phone rang the other night at 11:55. the first words were, “mom, i’m kind of scared.” that pretty much catapults you into the land of wide-awake and ready to hit the gas pedal clear up state route 2.
all i wanted in that deep dark moment was to be right beside him, the way i always used to be. with warm washcloth at the ready, sponging his pounding brow. i wanted the room he was in not to be the dingy college dorm, the one splattered still with blood from when he stepped on broken glass and forgot to spritz the cleaner. i wanted not to be sitting two hours away, but was deeply grateful it wasn’t the usual 17 hours away.
i needed to employ long-distance mothering, which might be one of the more wrenching brands therein. i stayed on the line a good hour, till he was yawning, till he was sure he could finally fall asleep. first thing the next morning, i was on the line with the doctor back in chicago. i was emailing the extraordinarily compassionate english professor who’d vowed to be there for whatever the kid needed. i was texting the kid, asking if he remembered to take the excedrin. asking if perchance the vice was loosening its squeeze.
i pretty much lost track of every other worry on my plate.
during the hour i was strapped into the dentist’s chair, i remember a tear trickling down my cheek. and not because the shot of novacaine hurt so much. only because the boy i love was far away, was hurting, was scared, was not so far from panicking.
i checked in a couple times that day. because when you are loving through and through you don’t get to forget the deep dark place where your firstborn dwells. you stay on it, check back with the doctor’s office, make sure they got the message, make sure the doctor’s set to call the kid.
you know it’s not yet time to leap in the car and drive out there. you want the kid to learn to fend for himself, to find his way, to take up the reins of his own life, and taste the sweet joy of self-driven resurrection.
by nightfall, you get a text, telling you the doctor talked to him not for five measly minutes, but for 45 glorious ones. he knows what to do. and, by the way, the headache’s lifting.
next day, he meets with the professor whose midterm he is due to take, whose reading he’s nowhere near finishing.
by week’s end, the headache’s all but gone. he sounds pretty much his usual ebullient self. he’s got a reprieve on the midterm, and all weekend to catch up on reading.
and you, the mother of this child, you’ve steered through the narrow channel, figured out all over again just what it means to love as you would be loved.
you’ve kept your whisper up against his ear, late into the night. you’d not let on that you’d been sound asleep till the moment the phone jangled you awake. you knew, because that’s just how it is, that you’d clear the calendar and drive straight through to the horizon if that’s what he needed. and, most of all, you knew there was no stopping you, no hurdle, no ledge, no nothing you wouldn’t brave for him.
in the laboratory for loving, the kid keeps teaching you the depths and breadths and heights of your hard-held vow to make this the one wee spot in your life where, no matter the blunders, you try — oh, God, you try — to get it right.
who teaches you the depth and breadth of love?