I’ve heard others say it, too: when we no longer have our parents with us, one of the things we miss most is being someone’s baby. I thought about it just this past Saturday, when I took my own mama out to what I have already begun to refer to as “Z Acres,” the property I have purchased in southwest Michigan and where in just three more weeks I will be living. I wanted her approval. Didn’t need it, no decision hung on it … but when I got it, that approving smile on her face, that little nod of appreciation, I was pleased to have it.
My son has long not seemed to have needed my approval. But maybe I’m wrong. The more I think about that, the more I am sure that he does want it. Sometimes, maybe he even still needs it.
A day to celebrate, yet I woke with my eyes misting over with tears. All along my hour-long commute to the office, I thought about him, whispered prayers about him, felt my heart swelling with a mother’s love, fierce yet gentle.
All those photos I had sorted through, and they were only a tiny segment, random glimpses, of his life so far. Other albums still stood untouched on the shelf, and I would be packing them all into boxes soon for my move. No doubt, getting lost in them again as I unpacked them in my new home.
It struck me as I looked through them—he rarely smiled. Did I realize then, as a young mother, that he’d been such a serious child? In most of the pictures, he gazed at the camera with his sweet face drawn into a thoughtful expression. Even when with the rest of us in the family, somehow slightly apart. As if lost in thought that carried him elsewhere.
He was a quiet child. Never cried as an infant. Surely he must have on occasion, but my memory of him is of a serene baby, putting up with everything the world gave him, without complaint. It’s interesting that my mother says the same of me. That she would have to come over and give me a little poke now and then just to see if I was still breathing. Something in the genes, perhaps, and my mother, too, spoke of how I never talked at home, always lost in a daydream or a book. Always looking for an opportunity to wander away by myself on some solitary adventure.
I still enjoy solitude. Z Acres will be an oasis of solitude and serenity for me. That’s why I so fell in love with the property—it is a childhood dream come true.
Maybe that’s why I feel so connected to my son. In many ways, I see myself in him. Many of my traits, and not just the good ones. As a baby, comparing a photo of him to a photo of me, we are identical.
Later, he increasingly grew to resemble his father in appearance. I’ve walked behind him at times and been struck with his gait, his mannerisms, at how similar he and his father are now, the younger version, that is. How interesting … because he has seen his father so rarely growing up. We were divorced when he was very young, and many years went by that he did not see his father at all—yet here he is, the same profile, the same step, even his beard trimmed exactly the way his father wore it.
We are our genes. The debates continue, nurture or nature, and in what balance.
I think I did, surely I did, but maybe not? Why does he always look so sad? As he entered his teen years, he became a chronic runaway. Broke my heart every chance he got. As a single mother, he tested my every limit and every boundary. What was he running from or to? Every time I finally found him and brought him back home, or he found his own way back in his own good time, there was no anger in him. Just that same quiet look, his eye wandering to the distant horizon.
Sometimes he would lean against me again, much bigger now, and quietly say, “I missed you.”
“Then where do you go? Why do you go?”
He would only shrug. Running, running, away.
When he was in his 20s, he took me for a long night walk once. I could hardly keep up with him, his long and fast stride. He would turn and wait for me to catch up, then take off again. He showed me a route he would walk sometimes in those runaway nights. Back alleys, forgotten streets, abandoned yards. I passed these places every day, yet had never seen them like this. I was fascinated.
He brought me into a supermarket. Down an aisle of lawn furniture and tents.
“Slept here sometimes,” he said, pointing to lawn chair cushions folded in back of stock boxes.
“No one saw you?”
“Never. In the morning, grab a banana or an apple from the produce section, and I left again.”
I thought back to my own growing years, and how I had loved the idea of being a hobo. I wrapped a box of Ritz Crackers, a toothbrush, a book, a pad of paper and a pencil in a red bandana and knotted it around the end of a stick. In my girlhood home, there was a long, wide grass alley behind the houses on our street, and to me, it seemed like it went on forever. I planned to make it to that other, forever end someday. I never made it that far, not as a child—at some point, fear overtook me. I came back.
What if you are not afraid of the forever end of the alley? Fear brought me back; missing me and his sister brought him back.
“Let me go!”
Years later, that agonized cry.
“Why can’t you and my sister just let me go! Just …. let me go … let me go … “
“No.” I knotted my hands into hard fists. Never. I would never let him go to that other end, where the horizon falls over the edge of the earth into nothingness. Never.
Both of us weeping.
The labor never stops there. It goes on and on. A woman with white hair, I still hold him inside me, my heart filled with him and my wishes for him, and my hands still fisted to hold him hard.
How is it possible to love so much? As a girl, I never dreamt of weddings, of children, of family life. I dreamt of log cabins in woods and living a life devoted to my art. When I had his sister, my first child, I was struck dumb with love. I hadn’t understood what it meant to cherish another life over my own until she was born. Then he taught me again, 22 months later.
For his decade ahead, a man in his prime, I pray: “Father, you know what it means to love your son. What fire that is that burns inside you and never goes out. Bless my son. Bless and protect him, wherever he goes, angels be with him. May he find that peace that has so far eluded him. Root him in love, Father, for there is nothing else that can hold us. And may he always find his way back home again.”
On this day, the face of a little boy in my mind’s eye transposed over the handsome face of a man, I celebrate him. All of him, the dark and the light in him, because that shadow has made that light so gorgeous when it shines. Tonight, he will call at our set hour, and I will curl up in the corner of the couch, drawing a blanket of comfort around me, listening to his deep voice, the voice of a man, coming over a distance, yet sounding so much like it is right here, right in the room with me.