On Mother’s Day this year, a month before I left, I cut Nathaniel’s hair for the last time. He sat on the porch stoop in a t-shirt and shorts, shivering in the unspringlike cool, bending his long body to conserve warmth and to make his head more accessible to my awkward scissoring. I held up curling dark-blond strands of his hair, overgrown since his last cut in midwinter, and sheared them short, as if in doing so I could make that last time of such casual intimacy between us stretch into forever.
We chatted about nothing much and about everything, mostly about how cold he was and was I finished yet. His twelve-year-old impatience was showing. I shaped the hairs around his ears carefully, thinking that by the time, if ever, we were together again just when he happened to need a haircut he wouldn’t want his mother to do it. Maybe this would be the last time, then; I knew if I said anything at all I would breathe on the moment and destroy its stillness and simplicity.
I started cutting Nathaniel’s hair two years before when we moved away from the children’s father and tried briefly to make a life out on the mountain-shadowed prairies of Colorado. He went an entire school year without a haircut at all, just letting his hair grow longer and longer into a luxuriant blond mullet. I thought it might grow forever, but when the school year ended he asked me to cut it. I’ve been doing the cutting ever since. I love changing Nathaniel’s appearance with a pair of scissors, using my hands to shape him, at least on the outside, into the man he will one day be.
I don’t know who is cutting his hair now. Little thoughts like that plague me more than the big ones: will they remember our nightly story time? What about Serena’s first period? Eric’s daily triumphs? Will they miss our jokes, our shared remembrances? Who will be the memory-keeper now?
Months have passed, and in a few days it will be Nathaniel’s thirteenth birthday. Although we keep in touch via email, IM, and phone calls, those gestures don’t bridge the physical gap that yawns between us. They don’t bring back the intimacy we always shared. There’s always something missing.
How do you write a love letter to your son?
I love that Nathaniel is taller than me. I’m a little scared by it, too. I always thought of myself as a tall woman and I was used to being the tallest in the house, taller than the kids anyway. I’m no longer larger than life to them. I look him in the face and I have to tilt my gaze slightly upward. The balance has shifted.
I love his eyebrows. They’re strong and expressive. They hint at the more angular features to come when they’re no longer softened by the uncertainty of childhood.
I love the dimple in his left cheek that appears when he smiles into his lap in private enjoyment of my slightly risqué dinner-table joke. The joke that his sister and brother don’t yet understand, that was said for him alone.
I love his gawky awkwardness punctuated by moments of uncanny grace. He’s beginning to become aware of the effect he has on others. Always a truly beautiful boy, he has allowed his soft edges to harden somewhat, to crystallize into an image of the man he is becoming. Other people are responding. They make way.
I love his determination, his impatience. I love how like me he is.
When Nathaniel was one, it was clear he was different from other kids. Sensitive. Inquisitive. He had an amazing memory — an uncanny ability to remember small details: which box he had dropped his father’s watch into days before, how to get home from the park. His father was disappointed and perplexed over Nathaniel’s “sad days,” the days when he just wanted to be on my lap, being held. He was too much like me and his father didn’t know what to do with that.
I miss him. I miss the nights he used to come downstairs while I was trying to work, writing late at night, when we’d talk about anything. I’d try to shoo him back upstairs and get back to my writing and he’d ask yet another question. I could never resist and soon we’d be deep in discussion of how people live in other countries, or of elements of economics or metaphysics, or of his plans for his someday-life as an adult. He was always thinking, that one.
I miss our knockdown-dragouts, two people so alike and sometimes butting heads in frustration, sharing our secret admiration for one other. I miss his scathing honesty.
I miss his unexpected generosity and tenderness, the small moments of protecting Serena or Eric or of simply loving them.
I have missed seeing him off to his first dance, and I will miss seeing him drive a car for the first time. I’ll miss sharing his firsts first-hand.
I want assurance that things between us will remain exactly as they were even though we’re 3000 miles and entire worlds apart. I want to hold the little boy he used to be forever, smelling the once-white-blond hair that’s now darkened to ash. I want to keep these moments suspended in time even as I create a huge chasm of change in our lives, creating a space for him to grow into.
I’m leaping into this chasm, trusting that it’s the right thing to do. I see Nathaniel at the chasm’s edge, waving. He’s there on his own path. And it’s all I can do to keep from shouting to him. Something. Anything. To bridge the gap that I saw stretching between us, widening, as I drove away.