I hate remembering. But I can’t forget.
My son wants me to look at him. If I open my eyes, I will see him peering through the crack he created when he wedged open the door a moment ago. He’s trying to be considerate; it is Saturday morning and my birthday, but the clock has chimed eight, the neighborhood boys are stirring, and he’s been up for hours.
His expectation climbs on top of the exhaustion that already smothers me. I can blame my sleeplessness on any number of things: the humidity that defines July in New Jersey, a night spent cataloging the ways in which I have arrived at my 29th birthday without the husband, the job, or the confidence to obtain either one, the thick wool of depression I hug like a blanket even though I tell myself I would gladly release it.
He tiptoes into the room and stands next to the bed. He’s so close now that I can smell the soap from last night’s shower overlaying a fusion of grass, earth, sun, boy-sweat, and the milk on the Cheerios he ate for breakfast. His scent loops towards me like a rope. I could turn toward him, open my eyes, let myself be tugged into the day.
I could, but I don’t. I roll away, turning my back on him and the man who stirs next to me, the one we call his stepfather even though after five years, he still isn’t.
Just for today, leave me alone, I want to say. Don’t ask me where your shoes are or if you can go to Mike’s or if you can eat the leftover pizza from last night. Ask the other adult in the bed, the man who owns this house and never lets us forget it. Call Gramma and ask her. What I want for my birthday, I am thinking with a clarity so sudden and sharp it almost opens my eyes, is not to be asked for anything. Not one thing. Don’t ask me to get up and step into the role of real mother and pretend spouse, don’t lead me past the pile of statistics books for the course I had to repeat in my quest for an MBA I am told will ensure my independence in a way that writing and mothering cannot. And don’t let the phone ring this morning because when it does, I know it will be my father calling to tell me my grandmother, the woman whose hands always healed me when words failed, is dead.
Whispering begins behind my back. The sound scratches at me like a cat clawing a screen. I could ignore it, wait for it to subside, but I don’t. I thrash in the sheets, fighting to hold back sentences that rush dangerously close to utterance. “All I want is . . .” “Just once . . .” “Is it too much to ask . . .” “It’s my birthday . . . MY birthday.”
I’m not used to being selfish, at least not out loud.
The whispering stops. A few moments later, the door clicks closed. My boyfriend turns on his side — I can feel the bed dip between us — waiting for something, acknowledgment perhaps and a “good morning,” or recognition that he has handled the situation in a way that deserves a reward. It’s a Saturday morning, the morning after a week of commuting, late nights, travel. This is usually his time to sleep in. This is usually the time we keep everything quiet so he can. I tense, waiting for him to say something, but he lets the silence stand and I begin to sink toward sleep.
The door opens again. “Mom,” my son stage-whispers from across the room.
“Mom, you awake yet?”
I could smile this time, give in to the inevitable. After all it is not my ten-year-old’s fault that I am wallowing in disappointments. They are many but he is not one of them. Yet, there he is, chomping at the bit about something. He is avid, alive in a way that makes my own immobilization feel more acute.
I could give in and just try, but I don’t.
Instead his whisper ignites toxic feelings that have reached the limit of my ability to contain them. I no longer want to contain them. I want out. I want out of this house, out of this body. I want relief from my failures, from my inability to make anything happen the way they are supposed to happen. If I can’t have these things, I should at least have an hour more to myself on my birthday.
I don’t know what I say. I only know that words spew out of my mouth as I sit up in the limp sheets that stick to my body. The smile on my boy’s face dissolves.
My partner rises from the bed, grabs his clothes, and follows my son out the door. I have exactly what I want but all I can do is lie in the twisted sheets, suffocating in the blast that seems to reverberate around me. For one hour more I lie there, aware that there are none of the usual house sounds, as if some kind of bomb has stilled the inhabitants but left the structure intact. I want deliverance now. I need it.
I could rise and ask for it, but I don’t.
Instead I wait for the door to open again and when it does, it is my partner, who looms now over the bed, his features arranged in an expression of disapproval, perhaps disgust. “You need to get up. Now. He’s been waiting, wanting to show you something, all morning.”
Foreboding fills me. “What is it?”
“Just get up.”
The first flickers of shame drive me forward. I throw on some clothes and descend the stairs preceded by my boyfriend, who is calling out to my son with an air of excitement that sounds forced, the way Little League coaches try to revive the spirits of their players when everyone knows the game is lost. “She’s coming. She’s coming.”
My son moves into the frame of my vision slowly, almost reluctantly. He stands at the bottom of the stairs and waits for me but doesn’t look at me. His hair is damp on the back of his neck. I want so much to touch him there but I feel I have lost my privileges.
“Show your mom what you did.”
My son shakes his head, “It’s stupid.”
“No, it’s not. Are you kidding?” My boyfriend pushes the front door open and urges me outside to see.
“I want to see,” I say to my son. “Please, show me.”
Then we’re standing on the porch steps and on the lawn before us, there are four signs. Red, blue, yellow, and green, they stand like oversize lollipops in a zig-zagged line across the grass, each bearing a few painstakingly hand-written words and decorated with flowers and balloons that must have taken hours to draw.
Happy 29th Birthday
I love you
The signs penetrate the fog of anger, fatigue, and guilt that trailed me down the stairs. My desire to restore the light in my son’s eyes, those eyes that flicker like summer leaves in the sun, sends me into a frenzied dance of apology and belated thanks. The more I exclaim, the more shuttered his eyes seem to me. I hug him. I tell him how sorry I am for yelling. He shrugs. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay.” But it’s not. I know it and he does too. I run into the house for a camera.
He won’t stand near his signs but leans on the bannister of the front steps, head down, abashed and distant. Right after I snap the photograph, the phone begins to ring.
Why can’t I forget this? My son has long since forgiven me. We’ve had many happy days and have successfully navigated others marked by greater trauma or guilt. In fact, he does not remember the incident until I show him the picture. For this, I am grateful. Still, I believe there is a reason I need to remember.
So I do.
The day I turned 29 was unbearably hot. My grandmother died. When I woke, I saw only what I did not have. The cost of my blindness was the light in my son’s eyes.
13 replies on “Twenty-nine”
Heart-stopping! Thank you.
I greatly respect the honesty at the heart of this essay. And I can’t help but admire the writing, which makes this hard story so easy to read and so beautiful. There isn’t a mother on earth who can’t relate….
So heart-breakingly beautiful it made me catch my breath and sob at the end. Thank you.
This is so beautiful and I have done, and sometimes still do, miss moments. Not all this big but moments still and it’s sad and you have helped me see it but also, how much in those missed moments, is loss and exhaustion. That too is clear. Thank you.
Not only moms can relate. But, probably, only a wonderful mom would remember.
Oh Betsy. This is just the bravest, most heart-breaking, and love-filled piece I’ve read in a very long time. Beautifully written, too, of course. But it’s your courage in telling this story that brings me to tears, and the realization that I, too, have such moments that I’d give anything to re-do. My heart goes out to the 29-year-old you. I hope writing this was also an act of self-forgiveness.
As many times as we have talked about this I must say this is the most powerful and beautiful account. Just another reason for you to keep on
That is very touching. I think every mom has those moments where they wish they’d had a little more patience. It’s just part of being a mom and being human.
Beautifully written, brave and honest. The last line took my breath away.
I could hardly finish reading this through my tears. This is the most powerful piece of writing I have read in a long time. Thank you.
I am so touched by all these comments. This was a hard piece for me to write but now I am glad I did.
Lovely lesson for all of us who are less than perfect mothers. Thank you for sharing
It’s funny – we all still feel guilty about things like this long after the person they were directed at has moved on. You are a good mom, and you are human.