I didn’t realize what was happening until the dough hook went through my finger.
Until then, I thought it impishness in the children. “Well, it looks like I’ll be pouring my own juice today,” my daughter says at breakfast, though I’m setting the black cherry pomegranate 100 percent real organic juice before her. She lifts the bottle with both hands and pours most of it into her glass, a few drops on the table as libation.
“Mama, you forgot my spoon,” the boy chides, though I’m holding it as I pour his cereal.
Ingrates, I say, though I suppose this is how it must be. They scatter from the kitchen as I call out the morning refrain: is your hair combed, do your socks match, where are your shoes? A bell tolling, unheard, as I insert library books into backpacks, zip up lunch bags packed with a small treat and a loving note.
“Who wrote this!” My son comes home brandishing the flowered paper, stained in the corner with strawberry.
I did! I exclaim. Who else is there?
I thought it the mark of a job well-done. I applauded myself! When they tumbled in the door after school and swarmed past me in the hallway, pitching permission slips, order forms, rain boots, and party invitations at me, I prided myself on their confidence. Mother will see to it. The tear in the stuffed shark’s belly will be mended, the patches sewn on the scouting shirt, the spangly dance top altered to fit. The dust will disappear from the bedroom, and folded laundry will appear in designated drawers. My love surrounds, infiltrates, permeates. It needs no witnessing to be understood as utterly true, self-evident. Like gravity. Like the earth’s circuit around the sun.
Their cleverness as they tease me. “Who left the paper open on the table?” as I sit there reading it. “Who got the mail?” when they find their magazines and letters from pen pals in neat stacks. “How did this get here?” at the outfit laid out for church or school pictures. “Is she coming?” they cry, lounging in the garage, as I scroll up the mechanical door.
Of course, children are stubborn and don’t listen. I shout when I see my son’s fingers curved in the well of the car door, but he slams it anyway. He shrieks and sobs, alarm at full volume, while I swaddle him with bandages and ice. I tell my daughter to put tights on beneath her frilly dress, to bring an umbrella. Might as well spit in the wind. They insist I gave them no notice about the school test, the lunch menu, the afterschool group, the appointment. My husband, too, walks past me in rooms, and when I touch him, he doesn’t acknowledge the caress.
The sign of a job well done, I say. Love so free, so available, so consistent, it is taken for granted, like water, like air. They need me and do not know it because the need is never denied.
But I noticed I had become so clumsy. Dishes slipped from my fingers. The drinking glass that bounced out of the kitchen cabinet, the platter that turned to pixie dust on our patio steps. The garbage bin that won’t budge. My husband won’t answer though I call through the house for him. When I have a meeting or a deadline or a workshop to teach, they plan weekends together, fishing trips, visits to grandparents, museums. They survive without me. I wouldn’t say it was lonely, watching them swipe up the bags I packed, grab the snacks tucked into the cooler, shove feet into the shoes lined up by the door. But they leave without saying goodbye, coats hanging on the handle of the closet door, shifting in the empty air.
The dough was for pizza, their favorite. A clump of yeast surfaced, not yet dissolved. I poked it into the dough, saw the hook coming, prepared to scream.
The metal passed through my hand with a whisper.
It was then I saw them drifting away from me. My son dropped his toy hoe on his foot and sobbed in the driveway. I knelt and put my arms around him. He held his arms fisted at his sides.
I sat on my daughter’s bed beside her when her best friend said nasty things at school. I shared all the right words, wisdom pearled on a string, clear and hard and true. She stared at the wall without a flicker of the eyes as I kissed the tears sliding down her cheek.
They leave the room when I’m discussing their homework. They don’t answer when I ask about their day.
I wander the house in darkness. There is the laundry basket of clothes to be folded, there the shoes heaping the mat. Toothpaste I scrub from the kitchen sink reappears before my eyes.
Lucky, I tell myself. You’re so lucky.
That night I lay down with a headache and woke up in cool autumn dusk. My husband turned the dough into dumplings for chicken soup. They sat slurping around the kitchen table, laughing chatter in a golden pool of light. I pulled up a chair and sat with them through dessert, laughing too, and no one said a word to me.
Every once in a while they notice signs of my presence. A package of snack crackers is lighter. The box of Mom’s cereal, which they raid on weekends, must be replaced. A candle has burned recently. The missing pieces of a game or puzzle have been restored. Every so often a high voice calls, “Mom?” Yes? Yes? I answer. “I mean Dad?” they say, and address him.
They don’t miss me. It’s a point of pride, a job well done. They’re independent, self-sufficient. I’ve taught them to fly on their own. And me? Look more closely at that yellow wallpaper in the kitchen, the old paneling in the hall. It’s not a stain or a mark or a shadow. That’s me. You may not see me, but I’m still here.