“There are two exciting things I can’t wait for!” Serena’s voice over the phone was breathless from excitement when we spoke in early December. “Christmas — and your visit!”
I’m glad to be ranked up there along with Christmas. And I’m even ranked ahead of Serena’s own birthday, looming on the horizon. Our weekly-or-so phone calls make only a tiny dent in the enormity of time and distance that stretches between us. Plus, there’s seemingly never a good time to call when all three children are primed and feel like settling into a nice long intimate conversation. They have busy lives and they don’t always want to connect. Why should they? They’re kids. Connecting with parents comes and goes as it needs to.
In a few days I’ll board a plane bound for Pennsylvania and my children. I’ve rented a house for the week that we’ll be spending together, so we’ll be able to focus on one another rather than on restaurants and hotels and driving. Creating a home-away-from-home was at the top of my list for this visit. For that week I’ll be able to step back into their lives and we’ll all pretend awhile that nothing ever happened and that nothing ever changed. This summer we’ll have more time together, but I couldn’t wait for summer. It has already been too long.
Little things bring me back to who I was before I left and remind me of who I am no longer. As I walk past displays of children’s clothing while shopping, for instance, I find myself considering the sizes, colors and styles., and I find myself appraising them the way I did for years: will that fit Eric? Would Serena like it? Would Nathaniel find it cool enough? Then I remember that I’m no longer the one shopping for their clothes and covering them with my love in such a mundane yet intimate fashion.
In Ikea not long ago I noticed a family approaching: mom, kids, shopping cart. A sprite of a girl pranced toward me and my arms automatically grew rigid, ready to catch her as she leaped into my arms so I could hug her close in our daily game of run-to-mama. My breath caught in my throat when I realized that this girl was the size of two-years-ago Serena and that her hair was not quite the right color and that Serena was 3000 miles away. I walked away blinking sudden tears, unable to look at the mother or her children, unsure who I was.
Before I left last June I wondered what would become of the Me that I was then. I wondered who I might become instead. I was afraid I would no longer be myself when I no longer had my children to be someone for. It’s been a struggle to find the threads that lead to the Me I thought I lost when I had wrapped myself up in motherhood. I still look at myself as less than whole because I’m no longer filling that role.
I was always the magic-maker for the children, and Christmastime was an especially intense time for me. Lots of magic was required and everything had to be perfect. It takes a lot to make that happen year after year. This year was different; not only was I at a distance physically but I was also immersed by necessity in a whole host of new life changes. Canadian immigration wanted me back across the border so I had to move on short notice, while a new job heated up in intensity and time demands. After I moved, an unexpected snowstorm moved in after me and covered everything with a blanket of quiet and isolation. It doesn’t snow here often, and I was snowed in. There wasn’t much I could do for the children’s Christmas this year, and the only magic I could send was in the trust I placed in my hasty online purchases. The gifts that I had lovingly chosen and wrapped in years past weren’t what made the holiday perfect for my children — it was that we knew the magic would be there.
The children’s father was never big on Christmas. In the past few years his contribution to their holiday was to take them to a store a few weeks afterward and tell them to choose their own presents. This year, because I wasn’t there to create it, I had low expectations of the magic happening for them. I sent my gifts and hoped for the best. There was no time to do anything else.
I needn’t have worried. Their father came through without me there. All the elements were in place, everything that the children have associated with their special day — tree, wrapped presents, stockings, cookies. It was all there. They had the magic.
When I hung up the phone after talking to Nathaniel and Eric on Christmas Day (Serena was too busy playing with one of the two identical video games that her father and I unwittingly had both bought for her), I felt odd. Something had shifted. I wasn’t there to make their holiday for them, but it had shown up anyway. I thought about what being a mother had meant to me.
Somewhere in this journey, I’ll find more about what motherhood is for me. I thought I knew once and I allowed it to cover me until it choked out light and air and only showed one path ahead. I look around the world now and I see billions of women, all mothers, each weaving their own stories, walking their own paths, and creating their own magic. In a few days I’ll catch Serena in a game of run-to-mama and hold my sprite close. The children and I will step back into one another’s lives for a brief moment and remember where we’ve been. When I’m gone again we’ll take those moments and our memories and create something new with them. I don’t yet know what that will be, and the not knowing frightens me, but I know it’s the next chapter in the story that together we are telling.