I wrote this essay in 2007. It was chosen for inclusion in an anthology called Blank: Begins at Conception, a collection featuring about 30 other authors discussing all aspects of human reproduction: fertility, conception, adoption, motherhood, the desire to remain childless, loss – you name it. The anthology earned interest from several publishers, but due to the economic downturn the project didn’t get picked up for print. In the interim, my mother died and I realized that death is a highly skilled editor: encouraging sharp revisions in point of view and perspective, deftly calling for updated editions, bleeding red tracking over the page. I also adopted the philosophy that life is very short, so, though I stubbornly held out hope that the anthology would get picked up, I think it’s time to let go. This essay is for my son, Kai. It was originally called “Mother, Saboteur.”
* * *
When Kai comes into the bedroom, I am still thick with sleep. My eyelids have matted together, and my breath burns. I pull him up and into the bed, whispering Come to me. For a minute, he obliges, climbing under the quilt with me and placing his head in the crook of my arm, singing Mama mama mamamama. I breathe in the syrupy musk of his hair. The flowered quilt enfolds us with the promise of more sleep.
Then, Kai is up and out of my arms. I will my eyes open to watch him. He stands on top of the bed and flings himself forward on the mattress, crashing with the vigor of two years, seven months, and four days. “Wall dow!” he shrieks. The cat, who has been sleeping by my feet, yelps. “Kee!” Kai says, and lurches sideways to hug the cat. “Moww,” he sighs sweetly into her inky fur, “Moww.” Her tail twitches; she endures his hug just long enough and then bounds off the bed. Kai is undeterred. He wiggles his feet at me, beckoning tickles. When I do tickle him, he giggles and says, “Kull nose.”
“No, honey,” I say, “I’m tickling your feet.”
“Nose!” he shoots back, sitting up in the space the cat left behind. He’s quiet for a moment, gone to the place I call Planet Kai, and then he asks, “Warcar?” I feign ignorance.
“Warcar?” he asks again, a little louder. War because he’s still working on his f sounds, car because every wheeled vehicle is a car. What he’s really asking for is his little fire truck, a gift from my sister, with which he eats all his meals and takes his baths. Fire truck, who he “feeds” and kisses goodnight. Fire truck, who is sitting on the top shelf of Kai’s bookcase, all the way on the other side of the house. I look at the window. From between the slats of the blinds, the faint possibility of sunshine lightens the night sky. All hope of going back to sleep slips away.
“Warcar?” he says, a small panic forming. If I acknowledge Kai’s request, I will definitely have to get out of bed. “Warcar?” he asks again, tiny crystals forming in the corners of his eyes. Something inside me pinches.
“Would you like to get your fire truck?” I ask. Kai deflates with relief: “Yesyesyes.” He eases himself off the edge of the bed, his stomach down and feet dangling towards the floor. When he stands up, he reaches to me and says, “Hand?” I give him my hand. I stare wistfully at the warm indentation that I’m leaving behind.
Our day begins.
Since Kai was born, I’ve often wondered what it must be to feel so consummately loved. To have every inch scrutinized, every bump worried over, every runny nose tenderly wiped away (often with the hems of shirts that I once treasured). To flatten and awe with a single smile. To have a big person ache at the sight of my tears, and who would do anything, almost even give up her brain, just to make them stop. This love is not rational. It’s a stinging pain that won’t dull.
Yet I have offended my fair share of other mothers when I tell people that my mother is my greatest unwitting saboteur, as if perhaps this acknowledgement flaws me in my role as mother. In my mind, being a daughter is a totally separate thing from being a mother – different roles, different expectations – so I don’t feel like it’s a crime to be direct about her. Just one disparaging comment from her propels me back into early, petulant adolescence. When, after the birth of my daughter, Aurora, I decide to grow out my bangs and my hair, my mother says, “But without bangs your face is so long.” While shopping for clothing, I pick out a shirt in a size that I know fits me (because I have an identical one at home already), she says, “That’s too small. You need at least one size larger.” Just before Christmas dinner, she casually mentions that after I moved away from New York, I “plumped up a lot.” And, though I tell myself that she means well and that her criticisms spring from a misguided sense of motherly helpfulness, I can almost feel a tiny piece of myself crumble. Is my mother ever awed when I say something bright and witty? Does she ever want to leap to the moon for me? She’s got a hell of a way of showing it.
On Sundays, we go to the beach. As soon as we arrive, Kai is a blur, stopping only to nosh on watermelon chunks. My husband, Brandon, an avid and experienced hole-digger who missed his funerary calling, immediately sets in on Kai’s “pool” in the sand. Kai employs my assistance in fetching endless buckets of water for his pool. Rory, who is still at the age where it’s Zen to hang around like a lump, relaxes contentedly in her car seat on the sand.
Kai flings himself into my arms, coating me with wet sand, his breath tropical against my cheek. He drops mighty hunks of sand into the shallow pool, drenching my husband, who is folded in on himself, digging away. “San woks! Ka boom!” Kai shrieks. Kai’s confidence singes me.
As Brandon hacks into the sand, wielding his stainless steel, garden-grade spade, my mother’s voice comes on in my head. “You shouldn’t dig holes in the sand,” she warns. “Someone could get hurt.”
Kai leaps into the pool, falling backwards, small driblets of watermelon on his chin.
“Well,” I retort in my head, “Hopefully they’d be able to see a hole as big as this one.”
“But what if they’re walking at night?” she imaginarily persists.
Kai careens down the shoreline chasing a hapless sandpiper.
I snap back, “The tide will have filled the hole in by then.”
“But what if they’re blind?”
By the time we pack up to leave, we’ve dug a formidable rift in the sand. I stare back at the constellation of sand clumps that we abandon – an archipelago of sand islands, abutting the skyline of our small city by the sea. Kai is humming, Rory snoring, and all I want to do is get my mom out of my head.
The Florida shoreline just recovered from a red tide. I find the red tide fascinating, both because of its suddenness and its entirety: the ocean’s fine and lovely and then, abruptly, it’s not. Acres of red algae bloom, suffusing the coastal region with toxic emissions and suffocating the shore for weeks. These toxins make it very difficult to breathe, cause skin irritations for swimmers (although, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to swim if they couldn’t breathe properly), and kill off local sea life. The suddenness of the red tide is jarring and immediate, and it’s a palpable relief when it recedes.
During this last red tide, we visited a friend who lived along the beach. As soon as we got out of the car, our eyes stung and we began coughing and gagging for air. Inside the house, we breathed freely again, but it was strange to look through the window, knowing that just on the other side was something so menacing and so entirely beyond control. Sometimes when I speak with my mom, I feel as if I’m looking through the window at something so fond and familiar, but can’t grasp it because of the toxicity just on the other side.
With two little ones, a parent is forced to become a master of logistics. Between the tangled straps of the car seats and the whining about who wants to sit where and who wants to buckle themselves in, even a simple trip to the grocery store requires strategy and patience. Weekends, when Kai does not attend his daycare, require marathon planning and at least a gallon of coffee. The kids get bored and invent new forms of torture with each other. Kai delights in standing inches before Rory and blocking her every move as she shuffles around on the floor. Rory steals Kai’s water when he isn’t looking, only to hear the inevitable reproach: “No, Wowy, my water!” But there are also other moments, like when Rory falls down and starts to cry, and Kai rushes to her, gives her a hug, and says, “No cry, Wowy, I sorry,” even though he didn’t do anything wrong.
I think that my mother could have benefited from bearing her children closer together (this wasn’t in her cards and I don’t fault her for it; it’s just an observation). Perhaps if she had, she might be better attuned, more sensitive, to what she says and how she says it. She wouldn’t compare me to her dead, alcoholic friend (who died a long, protracted death from cancer) when I have a glass of wine with dinner.
I do have a sister. She’s ten years older than me. Because of our age difference, I have few childhood recollections of her. My sister worked incessantly when she wasn’t in school. We had our first memorable conversation when I was eighteen. Our only similarity is in how we evade our mother, though even there we splinter: she becomes haughty and snappish and then she avoids mom for a few weeks, until her temper has receded, while I try to erase myself, searching for an exit in a house without doors.
If the adage is true and I am to become my mother (dear God, please let it not be true), then I can not decide the safest course of action for raising my children. Should I endear my children to patterns wholly unlike those I grew up with, or should I mold their childhoods from memories of my own? Or should I adopt a unilateral approach to mom’s old age and my children’s youth: ignorance coupled with hope (and possibly lobotomy)? What level of futility must I reach in trying to ensure that my own children might want to live in the same state as me?
When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I experienced terrors. It wasn’t that way with Kai. Aside from the usual first-time parent neuroses, I felt completely comfortable with having a boy baby. I suppose I believed that my son would be made of tougher stuff—and to some degree he is—although he’s also quite sensitive. I was certain that my second child would be a boy too, because somehow my body would know that I would never want to repeat the seemingly female-based pattern that I have with mom, that I love her but that I can’t be around her without either withdrawing into myself, saying something regrettable, or hating myself for another little thing. But I had a girl, and she turned out to be preternaturally sweet. My mother reminds me that at one point I used to be unabashedly sweet to her. She blames the change in our relationship on “the hormones.” If, by hormones she means puberty, then perhaps she is correct, because that was when I learned to think. It’s a skill I prefer to keep.
Kai developed a terrible ear infection sometime in his second year. He woke up especially early one morning, banging the bedroom door against the wall in his customary fashion. He even cuddled customarily. I stroked his cheek and felt hard, dried something. He shrugged my hand away in the dark, whining. When Brandon and I brought him into the light, we found that the hard, dried something hadn’t come out of his nose (my assumption, owing to three preceding weeks of allergies and croup) but rather his right ear. We knew how to contend with croup, fevers, overactive sinuses, and disgruntled personalities. But how to handle this?
We dealt with it as calmly as we could, though we were terrified. I brought out my essential Guide to Raising a Toddler (Volume: Most Recent), while Brandon scoured the Internet for the search terms “pus ear toddler.” We both arrived at the same diagnosis, an outer ear infection, so we nixed the trip to the ER. Later that day, after timely administration of children’s pain reliever, we put Rory to bed and Kai returned to practically the same lightning bolt he always is, I sat back with Brandon wondering, How the hell did we survive this one?
It turns out we didn’t. The next morning, Kai woke up whimpering. I sat down on the floor and he folded himself into my lap, twisting and scrunching until he became a pathetic origami tree frog, his heartbeat like thunder. For the next six months, Kai awoke well before dawn, fussing and irascible, no longer a toddler but a grumpy and annoyed patient grown skillful at evading medical care. We made numerous trips to specialists and the prospect of surgery on Kai’s ears materialized. One year later, Kai’s eardrums have been surgically perforated and he’s an entirely different (and amazing) child, but I can’t do it. I just can’t raise any more children, or a mother for that matter. I don’t know how to repair the rift between my family’s generations.
Parenting is about damn hard work, then eventually releasing your child into the world and hoping that the choices you made were the exact right ones to help your child thrive on its own. Being a child is about getting all your needs met with the barest of returns or contributions, then skipping out and doing a lot of crazy things until you get tired of it and becoming the person you’re meant to become. But there are children who return the collateral, who give back to their parents even after they’ve moved out. It’s not as if my mother physically abused me or lent me out to a pimp. Why am I such a disloyal daughter? I haven’t even given my mom my cell phone number.
In 2005, a large dog bit me on the face. Because the attack coincided with my mother’s birthday, I waited several days before telling her what had happened. I wasn’t going to drop a bomb like that on her birthday. When I finally told her, I fuzzed the dates, because I wasn’t sure whether she’d be more upset by the incident or by my deliberate lapse in communication, despite all good intentions.
I credit my mother with superhuman restraint. She expressed great sympathy over my face for almost a minute before saying, “What did you do to that dog?”
How about: I petted a leashed dog who, like his owner, seemed perfectly friendly? How about: I spent three hours in the emergency room getting my nasal passage reassembled – four heavy sutures to the cartilage; thirty-three stitches spanning the widest part of my nose; and countless shots of lidocaine, seeping down my sinuses and bitterly burning my throat? How about: Mom, I’m just happy he didn’t take the rest of my face or, even better, I’m just happy it was me and not Kai? I bit my tongue till it bled.
I have since struggled with my own culpability in the incident, as well as that of the dog owner. I still envision that morning – the closet-small ER room, door shut, lights off except for the magnifying light over my head, Brandon sitting nearby (facing the wall because I couldn’t bear him to look at me) – settling down on the crinkly paper and snapping my eyes shut tight. For a brief while the doctor had no idea which way the skin should be put back, shuffling and muttering and moving flaps of tissue this way and that, and I just lay there, willing my eyes to stay shut. I don’t know what haunts me more – remembering that split second when I looked into the dog’s eyes just before he lashed out at me (I knew better than to do that) or the fact that my mother – my own mother – took the dog’s side.
My mother visits a few times a year, mainly to see Kai and Rory. She stays in our house for about a week and takes pains to make her presence undisruptive, tucking her small suitcase into an unused corner and folding her bedding into a neat pile each morning before we all wake up. She always brings presents – Ukrainian sausages, nuts and dried fruits, chocolate, and clothing for the kids – and often she finds surreptitious reasons to slip me $50 or $100 (which I accept, but then send back to her under the guise of helping to offset her travel costs). When her train arrives (she refuses to fly), we meet her at the station and gamely stop at the farmer’s market for produce and boiled peanuts, a delicacy that doesn’t sound nearly as delicious as it tastes and for which mom, Brandon, and I share a fondness.
It’s always a surprise when the insult comes. During a recent visit, the critical moment didn’t happen until the last day, a Sunday. On the weekends, frankly, Kai gets bored, so sometimes he expends energy by “interacting” with Rory. My mother plainly favors Rory, which is great for Rory but makes me sad for Kai. I prepared dinner in the kitchen. Brandon sat at the computer in the office. My mother had been following Rory around the house, engaging her and talking sweetly, but she shifted her attention briefly to the television. During that brief moment, Kai presumably interacted with Rory in a way that made her cry. But we all missed it. No one saw anything. My mother yelled out to Kai: “Kai, you are a bad boy! What did you do to your sister? She’s just a baby! You are very naughty!”
I could have ignored the outburst if she’d left it at that – fighting her required more energy than it was worth. I could have absorbed how she accused Kai without merit, assuming the worst of him. But she didn’t leave it. An hour later, as we ate dinner, she sulked at the table. She again told Kai what a bad boy he was. When Kai finished his food – not much appetite, imagine – and got down from his booster chair, she lingered at the table and reiterated his badness to me at a volume that he could hear in the other room. I asked her to lower her voice and explained that if she hadn’t seen him do something to Rory, she shouldn’t assume he’d done something.
“But he did. I know it,” she snapped, loudly. I then explained that it’s important to scold toddlers once with immediacy and move on, because of development and self-esteem, et cetera. This failed to placate her. She ignored Kai for the rest of the night.
My relationship with mom has direct parallels to the red tide: everything is fine and nice, and then suddenly it’s toxic. Even my response is the same – I recede inside. As I see it, my role as a mother is to encourage my children to be good citizens, show moxie, and not hate me. What I can’t see is how to successfully accomplish that last bit. I don’t want to dampen Kai or Rory’s development with sudden noxious blooms of vitriol. I want so badly to be their recovering shore, their retreat amidst abrupt changes in the landscapes of their lives. My mother doesn’t erupt with negativity on purpose; she just doesn’t have any thought-to-mouth filter and she’s had enough in life to warrant a few unchecked moments of outburst. Things would be so much better if she learned to say sorry.
When my mother’s visit ends, the house breathes a palpable sigh of relief. Rory cries less, Kai’s mood and appetite improve, and Brandon and I laugh again. “It’s like you’re a ghost when she’s here,” Brandon says. “Why do we keep inviting her? It’d be one thing if you enjoyed having her here, but you’re miserable. Everyone is miserable.” She’s my mother. She gave birth to me. How can I tell her not to visit?
When the red tide dissipates, I’m compelled to go to the beach (as if I need an excuse). The dunes crackle, the sea beckons. Kai and I kneel in the tidal pools searching for hermit crabs and colorful shells. Rory plunges her hands into the wet sand. Brandon wades into the shallow waves and squeals, then says, “This water is great!” I’m so grateful to feel the blueness of the sky on my skin.
My mother and I used to love going to the beach at Coney Island. We lived half a block away; our bedroom window had a full ocean view. We’d go really early in the morning and leave by ten, just when the beach started filling up with people and boom boxes. My mother and I luxuriated in the sun like a pair of seals. When we came home, we ate watermelon.