This is my last column at Literary Mama, marking a journey of nearly two years since I began mothering from afar. I had hoped that by now I’d have everything under control and would know exactly how our story will turn out in the end so that this last column could be like a vast Lego city that stretches into the future, with me and my kids as tiny Lego people heading off together into a happy rainbow-colored Lego sunset. But I gave away all my Legos and I don’t have a map of our path into the future. I’m a psychic without a crystal ball with which to scry my own destiny.
Future options, as I see them in this moment, are still limited. Moving back to Pennsylvania would take me closer to my children — with no guarantee of resuming joint custody or even increased visitation — but take me far from the community I’ve become a part of for the first time in my life. My children’s father is still generating conflict between us even though I am 3000 miles away, and moving back now would feel a little like climbing into a lion’s mouth. He’s not interested in any of the children moving here with me, and has flatly refused to entertain the idea. But as my meditation practice teaches me, everything changes. Life is certain to throw in a curve ball or two that will change things. I just can’t see how from here.
The other day I ran into Harold, the wise man of my neighborhood. I hadn’t seen him in a few months and he peered into my eyes with concerned warmth, asking the usual questions. “How are you? How are your children?”
My throat closed a little. “They’re well,” I said. Clang went the castle gate, slamming shut. Up went the red alert flag. Emotion ahead! Abort! Abort! “But six months — it’s been six months. I have an expiration date. Six months is a long time without seeing them.”
Harold looked at me. “It’ll be fine,” he said.
Fine. Is that what I’m telling myself or is that the reality my children and I are creating? It’ll be fine. I rest in the stories of women older than I who have been through this and are on the other side now. Their children are grown and life goes on. No one spontaneously combusted, no one’s in jail. They have practically the same relationships now that they would have without a separation. Who can tell? They’re fine. It’ll be fine.
Serena, 10, wears glasses now. Week by week she spun tales to me over the phone of her little eye dramas. The school’s routine vision assessment. The trip to the eye doctor. The choosing of the frames — red ones! The fear of being teased. The relief of immediate acceptance and her new glasses being regarded a general non-issue by the (teasing) boys in the class. The wonder of finally being able to see each individual leaf, just as I had told her would happen. I haven’t seen the glasses on her yet, though, and can’t imagine her golden brown eyes behind lenses. The face I see in my mind’s eye when we have our weekly phone hour is still unadorned by red frames. It’ll be fine.
Nathaniel, 14, is moody and sometimes uncommunicative. I suspect this makes him more 14 than angry at his mom for abandoning him, though if I have to be honest I think there’s some of that too. Our talks go in spates — it’s all or nothing. An hour of desperate instant messaging (“Quick! What classes should I take next year? The due date is tomorrow! Help me plan the rest of my life RIGHT THIS MINUTE!”) versus radio silence when the only things I hear from him are his “Lover of the Day” automatic daily Facebook posts (it’s a popular application generated to randomly choose from among all his friends but yes, I feel a weird twinge when I see those; can’t he stay a little boy a while longer?). I tell myself that our connection goes far beyond Yahoo Messenger, that we’re joined forever on an energetic basis (my uterus right into his third eye), but really, where is my crystal ball?
Eric recently had a visitor, a social worker recommended by his school, who came to the home to observe, interview the family members, and make suggestions on improving his behavior. I’ve heard third-hand reports that he’s having trouble in his special-needs kindergarten, but has the school contacted me about it? Not at all. Persona non grata. I’m 3000 miles away and therefore I don’t exist. What’s worse, I can’t make heads or tails of the largely unintelligible words Eric shouts into the phone at me in between pushing all the buttons. It’s only when I am looking right into his eyes, forehead to forehead, feeling his little hand gently pat my face, that I know he’s truly okay. Otherwise I suspect that the Man With The Yellow Hat is his babysitter and Dora is his best friend. It’ll be… fine? Eric is six and has Down syndrome. Could I know what his adult life would be even if I was there right now administering therapy eight hours a day, like some other families I know whose Down syndrome kids were reading — reading! — in the third grade?
My first-born Jessica, twelve years older than the next-youngest sibling and out of the house before she could truly become a part of the tripartite sibling group I write about here, used to summer with her dad in Minnesota when she was little. He had moved there with his new wife when Jess was four, and I suspect she has never quite forgiven her Daddy for moving away right after the wedding. The August that Jess returned to Pennsylvania complaining bitterly about having been forced by a vinegary stepmother to peel endless cloves of garlic in a hot pickle-y kitchen was the same August I heard my child had been unfairly shamed by the same stepmother for shoplifting a candy bar. I hated hearing too late about things that had happened a thousand miles away, without me to hold my baby and make it better. When she was in first grade I had stood up to the teacher who kicked (!) Jessica and who read Bible verses in public school but now I remained helpless against a reluctant stepmother. Does Jess remember any of that now, fifteen years later? They say time heals. Okay.
Brick by brick, we build our future out of the moments we breathe in the present. That’s the kind of crystal-ball wisdom I give my clients, but the real-world Mama part of me still wants to know the ultimate question: did I make the right choice for my children? For myself? I squint a little sometimes and imagine them in ten years, in twenty, as adults and living their rainbow-colored Lego dream lives. Nathaniel dwarfs us all at six foot eight and his shoulders are broad like his father’s. He’s an interior designer, or maybe a lion tamer. Serena, willowy and headstrong and a published author, works with animals in her spare time. Eric is a five-foot tall Wal-Mart greeter and will personally escort you wherever you need to go in the store. And Jessica? She has her nursing degree, finally. And she’s happy. Just happy.
And me? As I breathe each of my children into me, their colorful gossamer threads wafting over the 3,000 miles between us, all I can do is gaze at the sky, my own sunset over the shimmering waters, and trust that one day, in the end, it’ll be fine.