After we pull out of the parking lot, I feel my heart fold over on itself, becoming an achy weight in my chest, like a lump of bread lodged in a mourner’s throat.
I chide myself: Did you want him to live with you forever?!
(I didn’t. I don’t.)
Even so, I won’t hold my husband’s hand or even look at him 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, doing his homework, and I’m thankful he’s still with us, 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 delivered my first born.
I wrote about it in my journal when he was a month old, and remember thinking: “What a shitty love story. Everyone knows we’re heading for a break up.”
Fortunately, a lot happens between birth and adulthood so the separation is more welcome than a new mother might imagine.
“Stop thinking about traveling,” my first born says, in his new (unbidden) role as our home and family life consultant. “Invest in our land. Build that deck and patio. Landscape!”
I laugh, telling him that it’s not a diversion of funds, but a lack of them.
He smiles. “You and dad are going to be able to do so much once we’re both out of the house. You’ll probably finish your book in 5 months.”
I smile, and let the fantasy of cash flow and uninterrupted focus slide over me, like a swig of brandy after a long ski. But I can’t think about that now. Aidan still has another two years of high school, and then college, and then this: What is this? Who am I with a 21 year old?
“You and Aidan are our patios and decks and books,” I say. “Raising kind, strong, considerate men like you means more than any of that.” 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, Casey and Aidan were much more excited about seeing Lloyd than I was. I’d been traveling all month and was wiped out.
But when Casey pulled toward the curb outside Skinny Pancake, my heart woke up. And I asked if I could jump out. And then Aidan asked if he could too. And we argued over that. And both of us opened our passenger doors. And I said: “Fine, you go,” and I closed my door.
“We can both go,” Aidan countered.
“I want to go by myself,” I said.
And Aidan deferred, and I opened my door again, before Casey had even navigated into the parking spot, “Thank you,” I said, as I scrambled over the snow bank, while taking in a drink of Lake Champlain, where I saw a man, watching, waiting, his legs outstretched.
We walked toward each other and embraced. “You must be so cold,” I said, “Didn’t you want to wait inside? I’m sorry we’re so late. We stopped at King Arthur, just for coffees, and then ended up with 8 boxes of baking mixes. Then we had to stop again at a rest stop to pee. Don’t you have a hat?”
“I’m fine,” he says, and brushes my hands away from his face.
We crowd inside the restaurant and the join the throngs in line at the counter. We look up at the menu board. “Do you want to go somewhere else?” he asks.
“We’re already here,” I say, sensing the first note of tension that always arises whenever time and food are involved with this particular child. His brother joins us, and then his father, and we listen as the boys immerse themselves in conversation that no longer requires us in any fashion.
“It’s sad, right,” I say to my husband.
“It’s nice though, right,” he counters, unwilling to plunge into grief so soon.
The guys continue talking for 10 minutes, and then Casey places our order, and pays, while Aidan heads 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.
Lloyd shimmies in beside me, and I scooch over toward him, until our thighs are touching; and my left arm is wound around his; and my lips are close enough to press into his bristly, but forever familiar cheek or into his neck or onto his shoulder.
“Is this too much? Am I too close?” I ask.
(I don’t care.)
Ever since Lloyd 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 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, we’d listen to NPR, and depending on whether we got out of the house early or later, we’d take in the news before or after our favorite part of our drive: The Writer’s Almanac, both for it’s opening music (that still makes my heart quicken) and Garrison Keillor’s voice (who we took the boys to see last summer); and in between, we’d talk about trucks (if we saw one), especially backhoes and front loaders and excavators (but actually only one of us was interested in those; something I finally confessed to Lloyd, a year later, when he was five.)
Lloyd and I shared a lifetime in those years, as mothers and first borns often do; But in the past year, we’ve only had 48 hours at a time together, months apart; and this time, only 26. Which I did count. But only just before it was time to drop him off at his doctor’s appointment ahead of his evening class: Auto Mechanics.
The original plan was just to make a day trip up to spend some time with him between work and classes. But he kept changing his schedule: “Wednesday is good. No Monday. Better Tuesday,” until 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 morning class and stayed over until Wednesday before his evening class.
This request took me by surprise, and I wasn’t eager for either the effort or the cost of another overnight as I’d already been away four times this past month, but sensing his desire for a longer connection, I suggested: “Will you stay with us if I book a hotel,” and when he balked, I later messaged him: “I’ve booked a place on the side of town near all the shopping centers,” knowing that it would be hard for him to resist such a lure as his adolescent mecca–TJ Maxx–which he insisted on finding during our stay in Acadia National Park, and every other trip we ever made out of our mountain town.
“I want to take you grocery shopping too,” I said, “and there’s a Trader Joes and another natural foods market on that side of town if you don’t want to do City Market this trip.”
Feeding my child or filling his refrigerator is the second best maternal pleasure after skin to skin contact. Last year when he 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 I noticed on the screen beyond the contrast of our wintry New England dwelling and his equatorial one (his 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 asked, with the desperation of a nursing mother separated from her babe.
“I am,” he said, though I didn’t believe him.
“Are you sure?”
And just then, right in front of me, he lifted a glass to his lips and swallowed.
I think of it often.
A year earlier we were on our knees in the kitchen on the day he would return to school after he came bounding down the stairs sooner than expected and discovered that I was repacking one of 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 picked up the items I had carefully sorted on the floor and tossed them back into the 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 mom, a 20 year old son, 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 he saw 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. And then he did something that I will always remember:
He let go.
I’m two years wiser now, and so is he, and late on Tuesday night at the hotel, just as we were getting into bed, he announced that he was going to do some laundry in the coin-operated machines downstairs and that he slip a workout in too while he waited.
I woke when he returned just about midnight, noticing how aware he had become of the noise of doors and lights and toilets, and I easily went back asleep until I heard him call out in his sleep–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 winced at his suffering, and wondered how a mother might respond to the nightmares of a 21 year old, but then I settled back into sleep with the comfort of him beside me in the next bed; the four of us breathing together; in the likelihood that this (though once an every day part of the family bed) may never happen again.
Long before dawn, I woke again, with sweat rising between my breasts and in the crook of my elbows and behind my knees–a reminder that these mothering years were soon to be wiped away like the castles we once built as a family in the sand.
A bit later, I woke yet again, to a stronger sensation, something I’d never quite felt before, at least not in sleep–the pounding of my heart–so strong and insistent–like a knock on a door–that I put my hand over it, fearing that it would leap out of my chest. I made a mental note to ask my naturopath about increasing (or decreasing) my progesterone cream dose; and then I fell back asleep again.
Before we left Burlington, we went to the water, and the guys built rock sculptures, while I took photos of sunlight and the lake that I’ve come to know and love.
Over the years, I’ve spent a week at a time on this lake, writing, mostly in the winter, in a house-sitting gig that I found after Lloyd started school here. Three years back, I walked across this water, past the Marina where he waited tables at the end of last summer.
“It hasn’t frozen at all this year,” he tells us, and I feel a bit sad for that, but 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 tells us.Which makes me equally perplexed because as a baby, his small, tender sinuses, often blocked, made him gasp for air on a windy day; and we’ve often shared how a death in frozen waters is our greatest fear.
“Are we becoming one of those families,” he 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. I’ve felt this as shedding of late, a molting, after a few decades of caring for younger siblings (seven) and another two raising these men.
“It’s time to go,” I say, knowing that it could take at least ten minutes to get across town to the doctor appointment that Lloyd surprisingly (and not surprisingly) scheduled in our last hour together.
“Couldn’t you have picked another day?” I asked when he told us about the appointment; but now, I only say, “I want my goodbye with you, here, in the sun, instead of rushed, in an office parking lot.”
We linger in an embrace and then release and re-embrace, lingering longer, before walking up from the beach toward the road where Casey is waiting with the car.
We arrive at the doctor’s office with plenty of time for more goodbyes, but I stay in the car because I’ve already had mine. Still, Lloyd leans forward before he gets out of the back seat, and embraces me, not once, but twice (or was it three times), as he gathers his things.
He stands for a long while beside the trunk where I’m sure he hugged his father and his brother, and then as they get into the car, he waves to us all, and crosses the parking lot, and turns back and waves again, before fading from view around a corner.
We sit and breathe. 3 bodies. A vacant seat. A return home. Without him. I think of that August day four years earlier when we brought him to school for the first semester of his freshman year. How I saw so many families, like ours, limping, through town.
“Ready to go,” my husband asks, and when I finally nod, he backs up the car, and pulls past the building, where we find Lloyd, standing outside, apparently waiting to wave to us one more time.. And then we watch him step onto the porch, and turn yet again, with another wave; and just when our hearts can’t bear any more, he enters the building, and we wave to an empty window, and pull out onto the road and turn to head home.