The first time I had the nightmare, it was set in a grocery store. I was in the dairy section, placing a carton of milk in the small plastic basket that hung from my arm. Suddenly, I looked at it in a panic. I wasn’t supposed to be carrying a grocery basket; I was supposed to be holding a car seat with a baby in it. Where had I put the baby? When I woke up, Ethan was asleep in the bassinet beside my bed. I touched his small back to assure myself that he was breathing.
I’ve had variations of that awful dream since becoming a mother. Sometimes I lose him in the subway, sometimes on the streets of a strange city. Once, when he was seven or eight, it came close to happening in real life. We were taking the light rail and Ethan ran into the train seconds before me. The doors began to close but I managed to throw my body between them just in time. Because of my cerebral palsy, I tended to be nervous traveling with Ethan who could move faster than me by the time he was three. But in that moment, I didn’t feel disabled. I felt like Supermom. Nothing would separate me from my child.
Since I’ve been with Dan, Ethan and I have celebrated Thanksgiving with his family at his mom’s house in Collegeville. A few years ago, when she was eighty-one, Miriam remarried after nearly thirty years of widowhood. At first it seemed a practical decision. She and Dave would share expenses and companionship. But I saw Miriam arrive at the church and light up like a true bride.
“You’re early,” she said to Dave, flushing with pleasure.
“Well, I’m getting married today,” he announced with pride.
They share a vibrant life full of travel, sweet banter, and lively family gatherings. On Thanksgivings they usually have a houseful, but this year our get-together would be relatively small. Due to various commitments, none of Dan’s siblings could come with their families, though his brother’s girlfriend, Emily, would be there.
On Thanksgiving morning, Dan, Ethan, and I pushed our way onto a full commuter train in Philadelphia. Seeing Dan’s guide dog, two men gave us their seats. Ethan sat across a crowded aisle from us, playing on his iPod. When we reached our stop, I signaled to him and he went ahead carrying his skateboard while Dan and I worked our way to the front with our big suitcase. We were almost at the door when the train started rolling. Suddenly, I was living my nightmare. Ethan was down on the platform screaming, “Stop the train!” Dan and I screamed it too, as did other passengers, but no conductor appeared. I watched helplessly as Ethan grew smaller until he was a dot I could no longer see.
“Pull the emergency brake,” Dan suggested, but I couldn’t find it. I called Ethan’s cell and his voicemail clicked on. Dave was meeting our train but I wasn’t sure if Ethan knew that. What if he was late? I hated thinking of Ethan alone and frightened. Finally we arrived at the next stop and rushed off the train. I tried Ethan again and this time he answered.
“I’m with Dave,” he said and my whole body calmed. Ethan was with family.
Less than an hour later, six of us sat around Miriam and Dave’s table holding hands and naming what we were thankful for. Our dinner would have gotten cold if I’d given my complete list. I felt so grateful that Ethan and I were safely reunited; that if we had to get separated it didn’t happen when he was younger; that it was in a bright open suburban station rather than the subway underworld of my nightmares; that cell phones had been invented; and finally, that Dave was punctual, kind, and, at eighty-five, still a safe driver.
As we took turns adding to the grace, every one of us mentioned how thankful we felt to be spending the holiday together. I thought about all the people who weren’t with us, including our many departed: Dan’s father and my parents, Dave’s first wife. As it was, most of us were still fairly new to each other. I wondered how Miriam felt about the fact that neither of her daughters were there, while Emily and I were. Because of our mishap on the train, I felt especially sensitive to the ache that comes with being separated from one’s children.
But then I remembered how relieved I’d felt learning that Ethan was safely with Dave. I wasn’t thinking, Oh good, he’s with an adult, or with a friend, but with actual family. One of us, one of ours.
Seeing that Ethan had brought his board, Dave offered to take him to a local skate park after dinner. While they were gone, Emily and I helped Miriam clear the table. I went to the sink and began washing dishes though I already knew from previous gatherings that Miriam thought I used too much water.
“Didn’t your mother teach you to use a dishpan?” she teased.
“Nah, she chased me out of the kitchen. I’m self-taught.”
“Well, now you have a second mother who’s going to teach you to do it right,” she said, laughing.
The inclusiveness of that statement brought tears to my eyes. I thought of Ann and Bill, an older couple who lived in our neighborhood when I was growing up. I didn’t have a relationship with my grandparents but I had Bill to fuss over my drawings and report cards and Ann to try to fatten me up with good Jewish food. I learned then that family has more to do with love than blood. I’m learning it again now.