In the dark chill at the end of another wearing day, the third in a succession of days managed on five hours of sleep, I stand on Tee’s doorstep. Inside, my boy is wailing. It is dropping into the 20’s tonight, and behind me, a river of cars, cars, cars, rushing in every direction.
In the early fall, I used my tuition waiver to take a course on somatic skills for conflict resolvers. In intervention situations involving extreme stress, when the intense feelings of the conflict parties can blindside even the most seasoned professional, it is wise to remember the wisdom of the body. Lift and align the posture, raise and expand the vision, breathe into the belly. The full range of our intellect is more available to us when we root ourselves in physical balance. Now, as I stand on the doorstep, I make a practice of allowing my vertebrae to slip into place. I lift my chin. I open my eyes. Hearing the sobs before me and the roar of traffic behind, I breathe.
Inside, my son is a crimson-eyed nuclear meltdown. Tee tells me the boy did not sleep at school on a day disrupted by two field trips. Bug yanks himself from me, rocketing up the stairs in his socks and t-shirt. It is late. Between this moment and the comfort of his bed is dressing all over again, another commute, dinner, pajamas. Tee and I try to speak calmly to Bug as he hides and cries upstairs. Whatever reserve of self-control the child has is tapped out. He twists himself away from us, flails, weeps. These days, such outbursts are rare. But what can you expect? Without rest, none of us is any good. I understand this. I am experiencing this, on my third overdraft from the sleep bank.
I cannot stand to see my child so miserable. I pull Tee around the corner and whisper, “I would be fine if he stays here tonight. We can trade a day. I’ll help put him down. I just hate to drag him out of here when he is so tired.” Tee stares, blank. The response, or complete absence of one, is so typical of this man that I am surprised to find myself surprised. His passive face calls up no indication he has even heard, let alone can summon a thought. One beats, two, three, four. No words. Until this: he steps back around into the stairwell and calls up:
“Come on, Bug, time to get your shoes on and go.”
And then I am up, hefting a giant tornado of a boy without a lasso, wobbling down the stairs. I am splayed in my work skirt in the foyer of Tee’s house with this arching, spitting 40-odd pound wildcat on my lap. I force his shoes on, and the heels of them, flailing, crack me several times on the shins. Tee sits on the bottom step an arm’s length away, silent, watching. Bug’s body wrenches with sobs. He is speaking in gobbledygook, wanting everything and nothing. I long to lift my child and carry him up to his bed. Crawl in next to him, let him surrender to my strength, sing him “Friend of the Devil,” rub his back. But that bed is not his tonight, no matter how badly he wants it or I want it for him. There is nothing for us to do but drag ourselves out on the serrated night.
I finally have to wrap the full power of my embrace around Bug’s torso from behind, force him still, all while doing the one and only thing I can remember to do: breathe, breathe, breathe. My grip tight, my core willed to softness, I whisper into his prickling scalp. “Deep breaths, baby. Shh, shh. Mommy’s got you, you’re safe, you’re okay.” Against my own rising fury, I speak these comforts. Anointing Bug with my scant supply of serenity has a cooling affect on me. The waves of rage at this passive man so close and so remote, and waves of distress about my own insomnia-wrecked body, and the waves of despair about the impossibility of rescue, they just roll on over. Without crashing into me or taking me down, they only pass by because I’ve got my boy in my arms, and I can breathe through them, and they cannot drown me.
I hope my love for my boy is enough to bridge these rifts in his world. A friend of mine, a hopeless romantic, tells me one of his guiding quotations is this:
Love, in the purest sense of the notion, can only be given and received completely. Anything less may be of great value, sustainable, and appreciated, but it is only a reflection of love.
He is childless, of course. Still, I marvel at the sting of the sentiment. My heart swells, aches, bursts open for my son. What could be more pure than the love a mother has for her child? And yet, do I truly give it completely? I deny him the single home, the one bed, the place he is always safe where both his parents are there to carry him to his sole sanctuary when he is unable to get there himself.
I wonder if I am capable of such pure generosity. I choose to follow a calling which carries me away from a man who cannot fulfill his promise. Bug is the one who pays for this choice. It would have been so easy, at any point during the past eighteen months, to say, “My heart can endure its own loneliness. It can even bear intimacy in the absence of faith. But it cannot stand my son’s suffering.” I could have asked Tee to stay, and offered our child that one, concrete gift of happiness. Is mine a true love, if I offer my boy only a fraction of what I have to give?
Without warning, Bug surrenders. He puddles, his skeleton and muscle dissolve to brine and beginnings. I pour him into his sweatshirt, gather first him then his backpack and my keys, step into boots, fumble with this shifting cargo out the door into the where traffic growls and pounds against the night. All I want is to slip my boy into the cocoon of his becoming, close his ears to all of this noise. I carry him, still sobbing, then drive him, still sobbing, through the tangled knots of congestion. Home, home. And when we come in, he is almost sobbed out. I am thankful for the small favors of grandparents who let us stay, for a warm and lit house, for someone to dust the toast with cinnamon and slice the apple. My boy, wrung out, eats in bed, slowly but with an insatiable appetite. I read to him from The Secret Garden and sing, finally, the song about running from the law straight into the arms of temptation.
Today, a poem called “Descartes in Love” lands in my inbox from The Academy of American Poets:
Love, accepting that we are not pure and lucent hearts, ricocheting towards each other like unlatched stars—no, we are tainted with self. We sometimes believe the self is an invisible glass, just as we believe the body is a suit made of meat. Doubt all things invisible. Doubt all things visible.
Because I hear no pulse up on the scarred surface of things, it can seem as if nothing living is left down below. Then, on pure chance, I tap a buried vein. Up flows nourishment almost too rich to stomach. I have neither the courage to trust in its permanence nor the strength to claim its limit. Faith in the moment as it slips through my fingers is the best I can do.
I am still more tired than I have ever been. But my boy sleeps now, his belly full on my breath, his soft spine curled into my unbending one. I will keep vigil. My love may be an imperfect force, but for this one night, its current is constant; its source, bottomless.
Ken Chen’s “Descartes in Love” is part of the series, “Brief Lives.” It came by way of Poem-A-Day from poets.org.