I never said thank you for that time you put your hand on my back and told me it was OK to leave. I’d left you sobbing on your bed. You were in fifth grade then. Arms lean muscles reaching to cover bone. Lanky in form, but small in frame and wailing when I said that I was leaving your dad. Even though I was raising you, I had no legal or biological claim to you. Leaving your dad was leaving you.
I came back a few days later to take care of you. Your moon face beaming at me. And we pretended like nothing had changed, your hand warm in mine as we walked home from school. Your shoelaces dragged, untied through the gutter as we crossed the street. Without being asked, you did your homework. If you were good enough, sweet enough maybe I would stay.
When your dad and I finally split up for good, you were 16 and no longer good or sweet. Your voice dropped and hung flat. “I don’t give a shit,” you said. “It doesn’t matter to me.” The gaping holes in your teeth replaced by braces. The round of your eyes bloodshot red and lidded with weed.
Now, you are gone from me. On the day you collected the posters from your wall, you couldn’t stop shaking your foot. Even your voice trembled. I could not see the scabs under your shirt, but I knew they were there, trying to stake a claim to the pain you tried to cut away. I recycled the empty bottles of tequila in your room. Most of the calls have stopped—the substance abuse program, your CPS worker, the counselor from the county shelter.
You call me when you need something. A place to stay. A tent. Money. And I can only sometimes bring myself to pick up the phone when you call. My stomach tightens and heat rushes to my cheeks. Joy, longing, and anger collide. I tell myself that I don’t hunger for you. I pick up the phone. We, for a moment, pretend not to be strangers. Mother and son. And that still exists even if not bound by blood or law. On your 18th birthday, you called me back to ask me to sign over your college account to you. “You’re not in college,” I said.
I want to be angry because it gives me something to feel that takes the pain away. But I remember how we were.
When you were in fifth grade, you put your hand on the square of my back, so you could feel my heart beat right into it. You knew that I came back for you. To take care of you. Because you asked me to. The plan was that I would leave before your dad came home. But he left work early.
I made for the door. He grabbed my elbow. The desperate hard grab, skating toward an edge. Thick pads of fingers, pulling me toward him. There would be no bruises from the force. “Don’t leave,” he said. My eyes filled with tears. My hair streaked in my face. And the animalistic fear came. Your dad was close to the edge. Hands on my shoulders. Voice out of control. I told him to get his hands off of me. His grip tightened. Every part of me wanted to leave, to break free. But there was you.
“Stop, dad,” you said. And you put your small thin frame between us. Your father stepped back, released me. That is when you put your hand on my back. I was sitting on the stairs. “It’s OK. You can go. Go.”
You gave me permission. Before I walked out that door, I held you. All 46-pounds of you, balled up as if you could become a fetus that would fit inside of me and go back into my womb and be born again as my child.
The Mamilogues is a forum about the journey of being a mom, because mothering is raw and gritty.