His hands are around my neck. Squeezing. Out of control. I’m used to his blind rages, used to being kicked and scratched and pummeled, but this is different, this is scarier. I’m afraid he might really hurt me this time.
“Let go!” I struggle to breathe, struggle to pull his fingers off my neck. “Let go!” I beg him again, falling to my knees on the Oriental rug outside the kitchen, the maroons, greens and golds all blurring together. Another April southern California evening lost to anger and frustration. I finally break his grip, gasp for air, run down the hall, and fall on my bed exhausted. I’m more afraid for him than for myself. Just like seven years ago.
He wasn’t crying that night. His skin was blue. And the umbilical cord–his life force for the past nine months–was wrapped around his tiny neck. As one doctor gently held his alarmingly scrawny body upright, the other slowly unwound the cord, counting along with each revolution: “One, two, three, four.”
Twenty-six hours after being unsuccessfully induced, my biggest fear had come true–a middle-of-the-night emergency C-section. A tugging sensation, my husband’s tightly clenched hand, and I watched in a mirror as our baby emerged from my belly. A boy! A blue-faced, silent boy. Why isn’t he crying? Why isn’t he crying? I couldn’t catch my breath until he did. Finally, finally, he screamed.
We named him Jonah. His six pounds felt just right in my arms. I stared in awe at my new best friend–at rose petal lips twitching as he exercised brand new muscles; at a tiny tongue darting in and out like a hungry kitten; at slightly clouded, not-yet-focused eyes taking in a world that had unexpectedly expanded as inevitably as mine had just shrunk. I’d never been so thrilled–and nervous–to meet someone.
Even before his birth, he’d become my entire world. An extremely difficult pregnancy–coupled with the oppressive silences and contemptuous stares of a long-dying marriage–had me turning to my belly for companionship, those jabbing feet, knees and elbows assuring me that someone was listening, someone was on my side. In the sixth month, when the unrelenting nausea was finally manageable, my husband and I met up with my east coast sister and brother-in-law for a long-planned San Francisco vacation.
“Say something nice about your wife,” my sister said at dinner our first night, trying to lighten the mood, to diffuse the tension that seemed to envelop us like the early morning northern California fog. We all turned toward my husband, eyebrows raised, forks still. He stared back defiantly, eyes unblinking, lips unmoving. The father of my seven-year-old stepdaughter, of my unborn baby, the man with all the words now had none.
“Mom?” Jonah’s standing in my bedroom doorway, the hard scary anger replaced by a little boy’s regret. He doesn’t want to lose his TV shows.
“Sorry I did that. You just made me so angry.”
I’ve heard it all before: You made me hit you. It’s your fault I didn’t do my homework. Blaming me comes so naturally to him.
“Maybe it’s best for you if you spend more time with your dad,” I say, not believing it but feeling defeated, out of options.
“No! I want to be with you! I know you better than I know my dad.”
My mouth struggles to remain neutral, but my eyes betray me.
“It wouldn’t be to punish you,” I say. “I just want to do what’s best for you right now.” And for me, I think, but cannot say.
“I came out of your body–you can’t leave me!”
He’s right; I can’t. He’s been my one constant, the only person I know who will always be there, one day to the next.
When, at six weeks, he graduated from the bedside bassinet to the nursery, I followed, sleeping in the lumpy twin bed just feet from his crib. My husband and I were barely speaking at that point anyway, so it was a relief not to lie next to him–hating his loud snoring, his teeth grinding, his very presence. When Jonah and I moved out for good just a year later, the adjustment was more physical than emotional.
I talked to Jonah nonstop. Sitting in his highchair, trying out new teeth on soft bread, his eyes would fix on my mouth, as if trying to decipher how I formed words. So I’d place his chubby fingers gently on my throat, letting him feel my larynx as it rose and fell. By 15 months he was talking in complete sentences. “Purse?” I’d ask, as part of our leaving-the-house routine. “Check,” he’d say. “Diaper bag?” “Check.” “Cheese?” “You mean keys!” he’d laugh–we’d laugh–and it never got old.
He depended on me, trusted me to keep him safe. Until one Saturday morning.
His father–angry because Jonah wasn’t quite ready when he arrived to pick him up–barged into our house. It was the day before Jonah’s third birthday, and his father was furious that he hadn’t been invited to the backyard party I was throwing the next day.
“Please wait outside,” I said softly, as I saw the insanity creeping into his eyes. But he stormed into the kitchen, reached for a butcher knife, dragged me across the floor–my boy clutched in my arms–and out the front door. I was still weak from a bout of food poisoning, so could barely fight back, was grabbing onto chairs and doorways, holding onto Jonah, trying to keep my bathrobe closed. My ex-husband wrenched Jonah from my arms, threw him in his car seat, sped down the street.
The next afternoon, after the guests were gone and the gifts unwrapped, Jonah ran agitatedly around the dining room-turned-playroom, legs and arms lashing out at me with frenetic kicks and hits.
I sat down in our special corner, knees up, back against the dark gray wall. “Jonah, do you want to talk about what happened yesterday between Mommy and Daddy?”
He came to a sudden halt, crumpled next to me on the gray shag carpet.
“I didn’t like it when Daddy grabbed me from you and took me out of the house,” he said. “And I didn’t like it when you were screaming and crying and Daddy was dragging you across the floor. It scared me.” He put his head in my lap.
His skin was warm and flushed, bangs moist against his forehead, a thin film of sweat smearing the blue face paint that squiggled down his left cheek. We were still in summer clothes on this first Sunday in October. It was five o’clock and finally cooling off. A lawn mower puttered and died a few houses down; leftover sandwiches, fruit salad and birthday cake awaited refrigeration. I’d thrown a good party.
Jonah sat upright. “I’m mad you let that happen.”
I’d filed a police report, was off to court the next day to obtain a restraining order, had brought two officers with me that morning to pick Jonah up from his father’s. But none of that mattered to a frightened three-year-old who no longer trusted his mother.
He stared at me, long lashes fluttering ever so slightly. “Dad came in our house and you couldn’t stop him.” Outside the window, the birthday balloons flapped gently in the breeze, well into the drooping stage, soon to face the inevitable shrivel. “So how are you going to stop other bad guys from breaking in?”
“I will always keep you safe.” I had to say–and hear–those words. “I will never let anyone hurt you.” I’m sure he wanted to believe me but decided not to chance it.
“Jonah was hitting kids all morning and was sent to the director’s office a number of times,” Maria, his preschool teacher, reported when I arrived for pickup one afternoon two months later. “Out on the playground, he hit one child with a shovel.” His father had been right there watching, Maria said, yet he’d offered no words, no discipline. “Boys will be boys,” he told me later. He was just slightly more concerned when, in kindergarten, Jonah held a plastic knife to a little girl’s throat.
Although his actions had directly provoked Jonah’s aggression and anxiety, his father adamantly refused to discuss or even acknowledge his violent behavior in our house that day. “I try to ask him about it,” Jonah would say as we snuggled in his blue teddy bear bed before lights out, “but he just says it never happened.” By denying the episode, he was also denying its devastating effects: Jonah’s very real, very raw anger, fear and confusion.
And so Jonah learned to hide his feelings from his father, saving his bottled-up rage for me. And, eventually, our uncommon bond lost all boundaries. He responded to everything from, “It’s time to turn off the TV,” to “Let’s go for a walk” with defiance and anger. After being scratched in the face too many times, I learned to grab him from behind, successfully restraining his thrashing limbs, but usually forgetting until too late about the backward head snap. As he grew stronger, I’d wrestle him down, sitting on his thighs with just enough pressure to control his legs, holding his arms flat to the ground.
Yet, he had difficulty separating from me. One summer, during his two-week vacation with his father, he called me regularly. “I want to come home,” he sobbed. “I miss you.” “Jonah, why are you whispering?” “Because if Dad hears me saying I want to come there, he’ll spank me.”
“Dad says if you know I miss you, then you’ll go to court to take me away from him,” Jonah said first thing when he returned home. “Is that true?” When I assured him it was not, he seemed momentarily relieved. “It makes me feel really bad when he says that,” he admitted. “But I don’t want Dad to know that he’s hurting my feelings.”
At the same time, he refused to accept any male friends into our lives. The few times I introduced him to someone I was dating, he responded with a kick to the groin. It didn’t even seem to matter if we knew the man–in an elevator one day, he turned and punched a complete stranger in the stomach.
He stopped sleeping in his own bed, refused to walk alone from one room to another at night, cried in fear if I didn’t keep the bathroom door open. He shadowed me to the kitchen while I washed dishes, to the laundry room while I folded clothes, finally falling asleep on the sofa while I read the paper.
These days, his nighttime fears overpower both of us. Occasionally he’ll sleep in his own bed, but only after waking me up nearly every hour, sneaking in to crawl under the covers next to me. “No,” I tell him, “back to your own bed.” He’s a solid 70 pounds; I can’t pick him up anymore. So I pull him by his legs, wrap my arms around his chest–leaving red marks on his pale skin, still so pure and unblemished–dance clumsily down the hall until he slips from my grasp. I wrestle him back to his room, throw him onto his bed, pin his arms above his head. He glares at me. “I hate you!” He looks just like his father.
Now, watching him in the doorway, I want to tell him that I divorced his father to escape this kind of anger, that every time he blames me for his rages I lose hope that he’ll grow out of it, that it breaks my heart to be abused by my own child.
“I’d never leave you,” I say. “You know that. We just can’t go on like this.” My voice cracks. “Go wait for me in the living room.”
“Mom, you’re crying. I can’t leave you when you’re crying.”
His soft arms, fingernails always in need of a trim, are around me.
“It’s okay, Mom. You’re just under a lot of stress.”
I hug him tight, my lips grazing his crew cut, remembering a smaller, softer scalp, the silkiness of brand new hair, that intoxicating baby smell. Since the moment he was born, irrational fear has been my constant companion too.
That first morning home from the hospital, I awoke suddenly, peering down at the Moses basket beside our bed. His tiny face was covered by the blanket I’d so carefully swaddled him in the previous night. That’s it, I thought, strangely calm, I’ve suffocated him. I’m still afraid of losing him, still afraid that if I can’t see him breathing, can’t feel his anger, can’t hold onto his childhood, then he’ll be gone.
It’s dark out now, nearly eight o’clock. Another bedtime battle is but an hour away. I run my index finger over his downy eyebrows, the bridge of his nose, kiss the freckles cascading onto his cheeks. They multiply every summer, no matter how much sun block I slather on. I want to cherish this time, these years soon to be just a memory.
“Let’s have ice cream and watch ‘The Simpsons,'” I say, choosing reward over punishment, forgiveness over reproach, peace over confrontation. For myself more than him. Because if I send Jonah to live with his father, I won’t be leaving him; he’ll be leaving me. And I’m not ready to let go.