when your sweet boy is flying through night, is up in the clouds, winging his way to you, you can’t sleep too soundly. you toss and tumble, and peek open an eye to check on the clock.
you follow him, one flight to the next, berlin to amsterdam, amsterdam, home. 12:40, 2:40, 5:40….all in the ayems, of course. waiting, just waiting, for the scheduled landing at 2:10 p.m.
while he does his half of the task — sits strapped in the seat trying not to splatter his midnight breakfast — you do yours: you haul out the pots and the pans, you indulge in the making of prodigal feast.
there are apples to chop and to simmer. there is cinnamon to sprinkle in dashes. there’s that ol’ mac-‘n’-cheese, the one from page 200 of the may 1995 gourmet magazine, the one you first made when your firstborn turned two, and the one that — ever since — has been family shorthand for comfort hauled from the oven.
because your heart is thumping at john philip sousa proportions, you haul out the red “you are special today” plate. you run about the yard with your clippers, tucking hydrangea (the first of the summer) next to his bed (as if he’ll be awake enough to notice), plunging stems of rambling roses and catmint into an old cracked pitcher you’ve hauled out from hiding.
at last, you leap in the shiny black pick-up mobile (that’s pick-up as in boy from airport), and you note that it’s near out of gas. you make un-anticipated pit stop at nearest gasoline pump, then you motor on your way, arriving at said airport a good hour early. (but considering a week ago, you would have walked to germany to fetch the suffering child, this hour is nothing. and besides it gives you a chance to inhale the tears and the squeals and the long-lost embraces that come with the world’s second-busiest international terminal).
you stare so intently at the swinging double doors, the chute that spits out bleary-eyed, jet-lagged world travelers, you practically will your child to up and appear. as that first hour drags into the start of the second, you suddenly look up and there, curlier than ever, slump shouldered from all that he’s weathered since last you waved him goodbye, there is your sweet little boy, not yet a dozen years on this planet, and now bearing a much-stamped state-department-issued U.S. passport.
you cannot contain it. you yelp: “there he is!” as if everyone in the throng might care about your particular pronoun. and before you can note the collective raised eyebrows, you’ve leapt around the black sash that attempts to keep order there in the exiting-passenger chute.
so sweet is this holy reunion, your boy traveler doesn’t even flinch when you throw your arms tight round his shoulders and backpack. but the nice lady in the uniform does command you to move it along. so you do. and you stand there marveling at how gorgeous he is, how his soul feels like it’s deepened, it’s triumphed.
for it did triumph. that kid, who was sick for five days, who came to know far too many german toilettes, he found it deep within to muscle his way to the finish line. the line where, with your trembling hand squeezing his, he now stood.
you didn’t tarry, there in the airport. you shared hugs goodbye with two surrogate mamas (both of whom you’ll scribble onto your eternally-grateful list for the rest of your days), then you zipped to the car, began dialing essential persons — papa, big brother, anyone who happened to be breathlessly waiting by the phone for word of the traveler’s arrival.
and, at last, after 11 long months, and another two weeks plus a day, you brought the boy home to where he deeply, truly belongs.
he relished every step of the path to the door, through the overgrown greens and the weeds that threaten to cut you off at the knees. he called for his cat, the cat who leapt from the old wicker chair, and promptly rubbed fur against ankle.
he kerplumped into the couch. he soaked up the sights through his sleepiest eyes. then, halfway through mac ‘n’ cheese, he keeled over onto the bench by the old maple table. that’s when he begged for a bubbly bath, and his old old bed.
and that’s where i climbed in beside him, into the 100-year-old bed that once was my grandma’s. i curled my legs around his, and whispered a kite-string of prayer into his soft little ear. by the time i whispered the second “thank you, dear God,” he was off in that place where the dreams come, and he stayed there till six the next morning.
he’s still sleeping it off, all of it, but when he’s awake it’s utterly perfectly clear how he’s grown. deep down, deep inside where the stretching and growing unfolds, he’s a boy who’s mastered an obstacle course.
just two weeks ago he was sending home emails saying he couldn’t possibly make it, would not survive there in a faraway place, upchucking every few hours, alone in a house with few words of english. and we typed back a niagara falls of you-can-do-it declarations. it’s all we could do, since the state department isn’t so keen on issuing on-the-spot passports for mamas whose children are ailing from tummy flu.
there are times, i’ve discovered, when the wisest thing a mama can do is hold her breath, and believe. and pass on sparks of that faith — in whatever form she can send ’em — to a faraway child, who is out doing the hard work of childhood, discovering all the nooks and crannies of vigor and stamina nestled deep down inside. the figuring out that you’re stronger than you think you are. that you can do what you might have thought impossible.
and even when that mama’s heart is nearly skipping its beats, she’s giving that child the best she can give: the hard-won sense of mastery, sure-footed steadiness, that there is no mountain too steep for him to climb. that the summit is there, that lung-filling vista, for the kid who figures it out: put one hiking boot in front of the other, step, climb, step, steadying as you go. you’ll make it to the top. and, once there, you can always tuck that triumph snug in your pocket, for the next time you run into a climb up the sharp side of an incline.
one by one, my boys are trickling home. this old house is filling again, with the hums and the rhythms that make it purr. the blue-willow cookie plate, the one that shines from under the cake dome, it’s filled again. the fridge is stocked with milk in all percents — 0, 2 and 100-percent whole. the oven’s been cranked. the shower is steamy, is dripping.
there’s only one bed that’s un-stirred (so i plop the cat there to make it look used). and as much as i loved this old house all to myself, i discovered i love it more when it’s humming with people whose noises i know by heart.
my prodigal people are back. and i long for the missing one now more than ever, knowing we’ll not really be whole till he’s here.
i’m struck by a sense — sometimes softly, sometimes with a wallop — that it seems we’ve leapt a chapter or two since last we were huddled here at the old maple table.
i can almost hear the page that’s been turned, as the life of this family moves forward. and the sound of little feets on the floorboard, they’re fading. where’d the years go? oh, how i love this old house that remembers. that once knew the sounds of suckling, and little boy birthdays. and now is home to a world-traveler come home to catch up on sleep…..
post-script: i know. i said i would stay mum for awhile. but….well, i found a friday morning without typing a bit of an odd fit. and there were a few things that rumbled around this week, so tap-tap-tap, fingers to keyboard. i’ll try to rest easy in knowing that if you don’t care to click here, you certainly won’t. and i’ll console myself with the knowing that a writer needs to write if she cares to keep her verbs sharp and sharper, and i’ve teachers under my belt who admonish: daily, daily, you must do it daily.
it’s a workday around here, as the professor is back to his life as a newspaper critic, and his first critique is spewing from the typewriter on deadline today. my world traveler is snoozing upstairs, and there’s a long day of writing ahead for me.
hope your fourth was lovely. and blanketed by a nightsky exploding with colors and sizzles and booms.
and now for a question: what were the chapters of your life that tested your deep-down i-can-do-it-ness? how’d you figure out that the best you could do was put one foot in front of the next, and sooner or later, you’d get where you needed, learning a few key lessons along the way?