1 month remains between me & the Motherhood Archetype on this 365 Day Journey toward Menopause.
As a gesture of release & acknowledgement, I empty my drawers of tampons (while still keeping some in my purse)–certified organic, chlorine-dye-synthetic-plastic-additive-free, 100% cotton–noticing how foreign they’ve become in my hand after 11 months without employment.
I began this journey of The Mother with my first bleed–at exactly 13 and a half (like my mother before me and my sister after me)–and in the absence of a u-turn on the immediate horizon, I’ll finish this journey at age 53.
to be embodied. together. in the water. in the sun. in the shade. on a blanket. their skin. his chestnut eyes. his ocean blues. my babies grown. their parents greyed. this family. once forever. now moments. like this. as deep as all of us in the same bed. didn’t he twirl my hair as we nursed in the blue chair. didn’t he cry to sleep in the stars & moon sling against his father’s chest. i must take a photo! but no. i can’t bear to capture that which is only now. this breath. my head. his chest.
Trigger warning (for mothers of young ones): After growing inside your body, and nursing at your breast, and comforting himself on your lap, and later on your shoulder, there will come a day, when your child, will live, somewhere else. And he’ll open the door, eager to share his new home, and you’ll weep, behind your sunglasses, because it makes no sense to your heart that he is grown (and flown.)
If I was a Lioness,
I would pick him up
by the neck,
and nuzzle his face,
and lick him all over,
and tumble with him in the grass,
and lay on my back so that he could rest his head on my breast in sweet
surrender. But I am human, and we withhold such
devotion, and so I kiss his cheek too many times, and sidle up too
close on the couch, and hold his hand for an entire
block, almost. But my thirst is unquenchable–flesh
of my flesh, bone of my bone, heart of my heart, this
man. this man. this man? So that when we
part, my favorite drink tastes sour, my salad wilted, the crepe in my mouth, a weight, not a pleasure; the sun
barren, the water grey, the sky
hopeless, even above Lake Champlain, even the chocolate
too bitter with the certain defeat of
Mother. I was 13
when my breasts began to
ache, and home alone on a Sunday
afternoon, watched Born
Free on the colored television in the living room, and released all the
tears held inside, not just mine, but belonging to time–mothers,
lovers, reunions–like the one today, which left me with a belly of grief, which instead of swallowing like I often do, I released, with weeping, all the way to
Skinny Pancake, but not before a small Vietnamese woman, who lives in Montreal, rose from Bernie’s park where she was meditating with dozens of others dressed in bright yellow t-shirts–stood up and approached me to share the blessings and atrocities suffered by the practitioners of Falon Gong in China–hearts extracted and sold–and I lifted my sunglasses off my face, and we embraced, eyes shining, grateful for our connection and our capacity to know and share pain.
We pull away from the parking lot, and my heart folds over on itself–an abandoned weight in my chest–like a lump of bread lodged in a mourner’s throat.
“Did you want him to live with you forever?!” I say to myself.
(I didn’t. I don’t.)
Even so, I can’t hold my husband’s hand or look at him in the eyes for the part he played in crafting this heartache, namely, lending his sperm, 22 years earlier.
A sibling, conceived 5 years after the first, sits in the back seat, with his homework, and I’m thankful he’s still there, I really am, but it’s only a matter of time, so I can’t be too attached.
Basically, I’m fucked.
And the thing is, I knew this from the start–felt it in the vacancy of my belly–just after the emergency caesarean that separated me from the baby inside.
By the time Lloyd was a month old, I understood that this love story couldn’t have a happy ending.
Fortunately, a lot happens between birth and adulthood so the separation is more complex than a new mother might imagine with a babe suckling in her arms.
“Stop thinking about traveling,” Lloyd says, in his new (unbidden) role as our life consultant. “Finish those projects. Build that deck and patio. Landscape!”
I chuckle, bristling at his critique. “It’s not a diversion of funds, but a lack of them,” I say.
He smiles. “You and dad are going to be able to do so much when we’re both out of the house. You’ll probably finish your book in 5 months.”
I smile, and let the fantasy of uninterrupted focus glide over me, like a swig of brandy after a long ski. But I can’t think about that now. Aidan has another two years of high school (2 years!), and then there’s college, and then this: What is this? Who am I to this 21 year old?
“You and Aidan are my patio and my books,” I say. “Raising kind, strong, considerate men like you means more to me than a patio or a book.” And I mean it.
It’s been 57 days since we last saw Lloyd, and no, I wasn’t counting; I just looked that up on one of those online “how many days” sites (they exist), and seriously, his father and his brother were much more excited about seeing him than I was.
Until we pull up toward the curb at Skinny Pancake.
“Do you mind if I jump out first?” I ask my husband, before he navigates into the parking spot.
Aidan chimes in: “Can I jump out too!”
We both open our car doors.
I close mine.
He closes his.
Despite his fierce heart (or because of it) he capitulates.
“Thank you!” I yell back, as I scramble over the snow bank, and look out at Lake Champlain, before turning toward Skinny Pancake, only before I turn, I saw a man, watching, waiting, legs out outstretched.
He crosses the street and we embrace.
“You must be so cold,” I say, “Didn’t you want to wait inside? I’m sorry we’re so late. We stopped at King Arthur, just for coffees, and then Aidan insisted on buying 8 boxes of baking mixes. Then we had to stop again to pee. Don’t you have a hat?”
“I’m fine,” Lloyd says, and gently brushes my hands from his ears.
We crowd inside the restaurant, joining the herd of breath in line at the counter.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” he asks.
“We’re already here,” I say, sensing the first note of tension that always arises when time and food are involved with this particular child.
We look up at the menu board. The herd inches forward. Aidan joins us, and then Casey. The boys begin a banter that has no need of parents.
“It’s sad, right,” I say to my husband.
“It’s nice though, right,” he counters, unwilling to plunge into grief so soon.
Lloyd and Aidan continue talking for a good 10 minutes, and then just before we make it to the counter, Aidan scrambles up a small set of stairs to claim our favorite booth; and Lloyd and I follow.
“Can I sit next to Lloyd first,” I ask, knowing that the rest of the morning will be spent in Connect Four competition between them (a game they’ve been playing here ever since Lloyd’s freshman year.)
Lloyd obliges, and shimmies in beside me, and I scooch closer to him, until our thighs touch, and my left arm winds around his right, and my lips press into his bristly, but forever familiar cheek, or onto his neck or shoulder.
“Is this too much? Am I too close?”
(I don’t care.)
Ever since he went away to college, and then Central America, and then Europe (Eastern and Western; with a brief foray into Northern Africa), not to mention the extended summer at the Jersey shore, it’s his skin that I want most, more than the depth of conversation we’ve shared over a lifetime, ever since he could talk really, mostly philosophy, but also music and economics and politics.
Mom, how does love break your heart?
Where do faces go when they die?
Does the Sun know everything, even God?
Why is this green piece of paper worth more than that one?
I can’t take any more of Clinton-Lewinski stuff; turn it off!
Each morning on our drive over the mountain, Lloyd and I would listen to NPR, and depending on whether we got out of the house early or late, we’d take in the news before (or after) our favorite part of the morning: The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor (who I finally took the boys to see last summer); and in between the news and the almanac, we’d talk about trucks (if we saw one), especially backhoes and front loaders and excavators (even though one of us was secretly had no curiosity in trucks; something I finally confessed to Lloyd, a year later, in the library, because I just couldn’t read another book about them. He was 5.)
As mothers and first-borns often do, Lloyd and I shared a lifetime before the birth of his brother; and now we’ve come to this: 48 hours together at a time, spread months apart, over the course of an entire year; and this visit, half of that. Which I did count, but not until we said goodbye.
The original plan was that Casey and I would make a day trip up to Burlington to spend the day with Lloyd between classes and restaurant shifts. But his schedule kept shifting. “Wednesday is good,” he said. “No, Monday wold be better.” And then once the plans were set: “Actually Tuesday would be best.”
Finally, I said: “Lloyd, are you sure you want us to come?”
“I do,” he insisted. “I’m really looking forward to it,” and then he launched into all the things we might do, especially if we came on Tuesday after his EMT class and stayed over until Wednesday before his Auto Mechanics class.
I hadn’t planned on an overnight, and wasn’t eager for the effort or the cost as I’d already been away four times in the past month, but sensing the opening, I made a suggestion: “If I booked a hotel room, would you stay with us,” and when he balked, I later messaged him: “I’ve booked a place on the side of town near TJ Maxx,” knowing that it would be hard for him to resist such a lure as his adolescent mecca–which he insisted on locating on every trip out of our mountain town throughout his high school years, including our week touring Acadia National Park.
“I also want to take you grocery shopping,” I said, “We could do Trader Joes.”
Feeding an adult child or filling his refrigerator is one of remaining maternal pleasures. Last year when Lloyd was living and working on a horse farm in Spain, he gave me a gift I’ll never forget. We were Skyping and the first thing that I noticed, beyond the contrast of our wintry New England dwelling and his equatorial one–the bright lemony light and the sound of birds–was the richer hue of his skin (naturally olive at birth) and his lips… swollen. wrinkled. cracked.
“Are you drinking enough water,” I said, with the desperation of a nursing mother separated from her babe.
“I am,” he said, though I didn’t believe him.
“Are you sure?” I pressed. “You lips are so dry.”
And just then, right in front of me, he lifted a glass of water to his lips and swallowed.
I think of it often.
A year earlier we were on our knees in the kitchen on the morning he would return to school after the long winter break. It had been a rich time of reconnecting until the last week when he regressed into an earlier incarnation of himself, and I met him there, unable to make it anything but personal.
Lloyd came bounding down the stairs sooner than I expected and discovered me sorting though his boxes.
“What are you doing,” he said, furious at the intrusion.
“I know. I know,” I said, “but you put all kinds of things in this box that don’t belong together, and I just wanted to reorganize it.”
He grabbed the items I had carefully sorted and tossed them back into the large box, making it worse than before, until he came upon the electric tea kettle, which I had purchased for him after his first semester, so that he might drink medicinal teas in addition to whatever was served at frat parties, but which I later learned that he and his room mate used to boil hotdogs…
What ensued was a tug of war–a 51 year old woman, a 19 year old man, and a stainless steel kettle.
It could have been funny.
If it was on Netflix.
Finally, we locked eyes, the kettle between us, and I said: “Just let me have this,” and Lloyd must have seen something that he hadn’t let himself see before, or that I never revealed before or knew myself–that this wasn’t about whether or not he had packed the box right, or who was in charge, or where the kettle should go.
Lloyd let go.
I’m two years wiser now, and so is he, and late on Tuesday night at the hotel, just as the rest of us were getting into bed, he announces that he os going to go do some laundry in the coin-operated machines, and that he’ll go to the gym while he’s waiting.
He returns before midnight, and I easily fall back to sleep with an appreciation of his growing awareness of doors and lights and toilets. An hour later, however, I am woken again when he hollers something about “shifts” and “schedules” and “tables”–the recurring nightmare of those who put themselves through school (and onto planes into foreign countries) through restaurant work, which is how his father and I met.
I wince, wondering how a mother is supposed to respond to the suffering of a 21 year old, but then I settle back into sleep with the sweet awareness of his presence– beside me–in the next bed–the four of us breathing together–as we had for so many years–and might never again.
Long before dawn, I wake again, with sweat rising between my breasts and in the crook of my elbows and behind my knees–a reminder that these mothering years are soon to be swept away–like the castles we built as a family in the sand.
Soon after, I wake yet again, to a stronger sensation, something I’d never quite experienced before–the pounding of my heart–so insistent–that it feels like a knock on a door.
I put my hand over it, fearing my heart would leap out of my chest; and just as quickly, it stopped, as if I’d had dreamed the whole thing; and I made a mental note to ask my doctor about increasing (or decreasing) my progesterone cream dosing.
The next morning we showered and ate and shopped some more, and then I pressed for some time together beside the water.
After a short stroll, we headed down to a beach, and the guys built rock sculptures as they have for a lifetime, and I took photos of sunlight and the lake that I’ve come to know and love over the years since Lloyd has been in Burlington.
I’ve spent many a winter week on Lake Champlain, writing, in a sweet house-sitting gig with a cat named Clyde. One winter (the winter of the tea kettle tug of war), I walked across this water, just past the Marina where Lloyd waits tables in the summer.
“It hasn’t frozen at all this year,” he tells me, and I feel sad and concerned to hear this, but also relieved for him as the wind chill in Burlington is brutal, and winter here has long been his bane, which makes me wild with maternal wonder at why he returns, again and again, insistent on mastering himself in this place.
“I might get my Captain’s license,” he says, which leaves me equally wondering, because we both share a fear of death in frozen waters, and because as an infant, his small, tender sinuses, often blocked, made him gasp for air on breezy days; but now he claims that he loves the feel of the wind on his face on open water.
“Are we becoming one of those families,” Lloyd chides when I press for a group photo; but I don’t bite; because I’m mastering something too–myself–apart from his (or for that matter, anyone’s) view.
This has felt like a shedding of late; molting comes to mind. “Molt, molt,” I say to myself, each time I hold on too tightly.
“It’s time to go,” I say, knowing that it could take at least ten minutes to get across town to the chiropractor appointment that Lloyd surprisingly (and not surprisingly) scheduled in our last hour together.
“Couldn’t you have picked another day?” I asked when he first told us about it; but now, I only say: “I want my goodbye with you, here, in the sun, instead of rushed, in an office parking lot.”
Lloyd and I embrace beside the water and then release, and re-embrace, lingering longer, before we walk up from the beach toward the road where Casey is waiting with the car.
We arrive across town with plenty of time for more goodbyes, but I stay in the car because I’ve already had mine; and still, Lloyd leans forward, and embraces me, not once, but twice (or was it three times), before he gets out with his things.
He stands for a long while beside the trunk with his father and brother, but I don’t look, until Casey and Aidan are back inside the car, and then I watch him cross the parking lot, and turn to wave, and we all watch as he turns back one more time, to wave yet again, before fading around a corner.
We sit and breathe. 3 bodies. A vacant seat. A return home. Without him.
“Ready?” my husband asks, and when I nod, he backs up the car, and pulls past the building, where to our surprise, we find Lloyd waiting to wave to us one more time; seeming more like the little boy I drove over the mountain to the preschool instead of the one who lives here without me.
Before turning onto the road, I watch Lloyd step up onto the porch, and turn yet again, with another wave; and just when my heart can’t bear any more, he enters the building, and I wave to the window, but he isn’t there.
It was an unseasonably warm day, much like today, but in 1999, when weather like this was so rare as to be a miracle.
I waited to pick up a pregnancy test until after my hair appointment that, not wanting to give up my annual birthday ritual of highlights, but knowing that I would, if there had been a someone, to consider, inside.
A year had passed without two lines on a stick.
My first miscarriage was six-years earlier.In May of 1993.
The second–in November–of the same year, on the day of Uncle Joe’s funeral.
A son had come two years later, and now a second soul was knocking on the door, but I hadn’t found the key.
I stopped at Rite Aid with my fresh highlights and purchased this month’s pregnancy test.
I stopped at the Post Office too.
A yellow notification card.
A high school friend. A cd. Stevie Nicks.
Once home, I peed on a stick. I pushed play.
I called my husband. And my sisters.
No one was there.
I pushed play again, and hit the repeat button, and turned up the volume and opened the French doors and stepped outside, into the yard, onto grass, instead of snow, and danced and twirled and laughed with the mountains and the woods and the sky. In rapture.
It would be months before this song became an anthem.
He was born just in time.
A week early.
She held him in her arms before she died.
His life and this song became our balm.
One summer a few years back, I stumbled upon a brilliant act of self-love. I arranged for both of our boys to be away from home at the same time.
Our oldest departed early Sunday morning on a road trip with his girlfriend, while our youngest was scheduled to be dropped off at camp that very afternoon.
On the drive over to Waubanog, my husband turned to me with a giddy whisper, asking What do you want to do AFTER…!
I could barely contain my delight and hoped my son wouldn’t see or sense it from the backseat.
Mostly we slept, and went out to eat, and enjoyed lots of summer cocktails.
A week later, we’d also learned some things about ourselves; things we could no longer blame on the kids:
1. We make lots of messes.
2. We use lots of glasses.
3. We depend on their noise, demands, connection & love to direct our days, our emotions, our very thoughts.
4. We’d do well to focus more on our own shit. Inside and out. There’s plenty there.
5. They apparently keep animals away from our gardens.
(Either that or they arranged for the groundhog to eat all the greens so that they wouldn’t have to.)
6. Casey & I still enjoy each others company more than we do anyone else. (Following some initial turbulence.)
7. We can’t wait for them to leave, and when they’re finally gone, we miss them. (Duh.)
8. We have softer edges without them, but much less dimension.
9. There will always be an Aidan and a Lloyd shaped empty space in our hearts once they’ve grown.
(Sappy, but true. OUCH.)
10. Even without the distraction, disturbance & delight of children, we don’t “get done” what we imagined.
11. Our lives without them will easily out distance the day-to-day we’ve shared as a family.
At the end of that summer, our oldest and his beloved set to repainting his walls. Their youthful abandon spilled out of his room and down the stairs and into the kitchen; as did the palpable presence of endings–he would leave for college that week and they would break up rather than endure a long distance relationship (and I was not to ask about how or if we would see her once he was gone.)
Add to this the juxtaposition of my baby sister’s first born who had just celebrated his first birthday. His milestones seemed to be engaged in some kind of parallel dance with those taking place in my home.
I hold no regrets. I have lived well and loved our years with children; and I am proud to see them spread their wings; though what is also true is that I can barely breathe at the thought of a completely empty house, or imagine one that doesn’t begin and end with camps and semesters and vacations.
When the boys were babies, Casey & I would race up the stairs to be the first to arrive after naptime–to be that holy recipient of their precious waking gaze of delight & devotion.
At the end of that week apart, instead of a set of stairs, it was a steep hill, and the baby was 13 and he was smelly, carrying all of his gear from a week in a tent. Casey wore flip flops. I chose sneakers. I may have pushed him off the path. More than once.
What I’ve learned most from my time with and apart from my children is something I feel a bit embarrassed to share…
A deep & abiding love for myself, and the pleasure of my own company.
Which alas, grew out of my fierce love for them–both in their comings and their goings.
This past week, in another brilliant act of self-love, I sent my husband off on a trip to retrieve our youngest from his time at the shore with his young cousin–who is now 4 years old.
It was a hard decision not to go along. I missed his little sister’s second birthday. I missed spending time with my entire extended family. I missed a beach trip I’ve taken every summer since we moved to the mountains 23 years ago.
But I also felt conflicted about leaving because it was my oldest son’s birthday, and even though he lived three hours away and planned to spend his 21st with his friends instead of coming home, I wanted to be here. Just to the hold the place of home if nothing else.
I also wanted to write. And to find myself. And to hear my own thoughts. Especially as my first born came of age.
After the initial pangs of emptiness, I settled into a delicious morning of word and bird song and green tea.