The sound of your leaving
On Motherhood: Lingering in the space between joy and heartache
I walk down the steps to put a letter to my cousin in the mailbox. I notice the blooms on the sedums are turning from sage green to mauve and I am reminded that summer has ended. I mourn every leaf that falls from the dogwood tree, every wilting dahlia, the dwindling days that stretched golden for centuries. After I say goodnight to you and kiss your face, your hair, your hands, I go outside to look for the fireflies in the field, but everything is blue and still and empty. How did I miss their leaving? The tables overflowing with heirloom tomatoes at the farmer’s market—Cherokee Purple, Dad’s Sunset, Carolina Gold—are now sparse and closing up early. The morning air has lost its warmth and I have to cover your tiny feet with socks every time we leave the house. How does summer escape when I am holding on so tightly?
Time has no mercy. It marches on without any regard for our moods, our yearnings, our needs. Doesn’t it know I am not ready?
You’re a year old now, my darling, and I am lingering in the space between joy and heartache. Joy for your growth, your wild walking feet, your existence. Heartache for all the loss that comes with you growing up. How many more days will you bury your face into my neck? How many more days will you reach out for me to kiss your palms? How many more days will you lay your head in my lap?
There’s a scene from a film that I will tell you about one day, that I will show you if you’re open to it. The protagonist is a seventeen-year-old boy named Elio and he loves to read, just like you. In the scene, his father is sitting on the couch and his mother is next to him reading from a book aloud. Elio lies down, draping himself over the top of them, his head in his mother’s lap. She reads from the book, The Tales of the Heptameron written by Marguerite, Queen of Navarre. “I pray you, sweetheart, counsel me whether it is better for a man to speak or die?” Elio is listening, and his mother is running her fingers through his hair. It’s a simple scene, really. And that’s what makes it so beautiful, so real. May you never be too old to lay your head in my lap as I read to you. May you listen to the words; to your own heart. May you tell me everything for it is always better to speak than to die.
You’re realizing now that we are separate beings, that distance can form between us, that I exist apart from you. You cry when I leave the room, reaching your little hands out to try to close the gap. I get on my knees so my eyes can meet yours, and I tell you that I hear you and I know that you want me to stay. I tell you that I know it’s hard to let go. I tell you that I will always come back. I tell you that you’re safe, you’re loved, and that it’s okay to be sad.
I want to cry, too, because I know someday far too soon, you’ll be the one leaving the room, out the front door, bags in hand. I reach out to you, but the gap is too wide. I can hear the sound of your leaving. The jingling of your car keys as you walk down the driveway. The car door slamming. The hum of the engine, the tires on the asphalt, your voice out the window, bye, mama. See you soon. You’re moving into a home of your own, you're building a life beyond me.
I never wanted to believe that you’re separate from me. In a lot of ways, I still don’t believe it. I can feel you in my bones, my teeth, my fingertips, behind my eyes, the way my feet move across the ground, the way my heart beats—you are in every part of me, you are every part of me.
When you get older I want you to ask me about what I remember about your life, about that first year. I will tell you that I remember everything. Ask me, my darling, and I will tell you every good thing and every bad. May language, all the things that are said and not said, be the thing that bonds us together as you become more you and less me.
Ask me, my darling, and I will tell you about when we went apple picking and had pizza topped with kalamata olives under the magnolia tree. The air smelled ripe with the harvest, apple cider, and honey bees. An elderly woman offered to take our picture. I was wearing a thrift store dress that was two sizes too big—my ever-changing body, shifting from carrying you on the inside to cradling you in my arms. We smiled at the camera. I kissed your face. Copper leaves dripped from the sky.
I will tell you about how hard we both tried during the birth, how bruised and battered your head was from knocking into my pelvis for five hours of pushing during labor. As time went on, the abrasion healed, but the shape hadn’t fully rounded out. The doctors were concerned. They said you didn’t show any signs we needed to worry about, but they sent us to a neurologist just in case. The appointment was scheduled right after Christmas. I remember holding you on Christmas Day, everyone was opening presents, talking and laughing in the merry way people do during Christmas. I searched myself for joy, but it was buried under so much worry that it hurt to smile. In my mama heart, I knew you were okay, but it was so hard for me to trust myself after everything that happened with the birth. What if I was wrong? At the appointment, the neurologist examined you, felt around your head, looked at you from side to side, then held you up and said, “He is perfect.” The relief that washed over me was a tidal wave.
I will tell you about when we hiked to the waterfall through Graveyard Fields. You were wearing your pajamas dotted with tiny lions. I was sweating from the climb, my hair and shirt sticking to my skin, and I wanted to dive into the cool pool below. We changed your diaper on a rock in the shade. We listened to the rushing of the water and I read you poems about desire, truth, and the color green. You fell asleep against me on our trek down the mountain with poems in your head and my heart in your hands. I remember telling you that there would be many more days like this. Days where we can hear the sound of being alive, where we experience the world through the tips of our fingers, where the sun shines from our mouths.
I will tell you about the roadtrip to Michigan—how much I hated it because you hated it. We left at bedtime in hopes you’d sleep most of the way. You didn’t. You cried and you reached for me, and I had us stop at a gas station. You stopped crying as soon as I pulled you from the carseat. I took a photo of you and your dad in front of the lit-up gas station sign that said Grumpy’s. We tried again—put you back into the carseat, turned on the piano lullabies you liked, and prayed to no one and everyone for you to fall asleep. But it didn’t work. You started crying and kept crying. Your face turned purple. We pulled over next to a cornfield, another gas station, a forgotten highway somewhere in the midwest—anywhere so that I could hold you. I dried your little face with the palm of my hand and kissed your head a thousand times. Everything smelled of hot asphalt, defeat, and the summer sky at night. We arrived at your grandfather’s house when the sun spread golden with peace across the farm fields and the cherry orchards. I said we made it, darling and your breath slowed against my chest.
I will tell you about how your dad and I started couples therapy, and how this is a good thing. You’ve changed us, made us so much better than we ever thought we’d be, but we’ve had to get to know each other all over again. This, too, is a good thing. We’re learning and growing and building a life with and around and for you. Building a home in us, a home you can always come back to, something neither he nor I ever had growing up.
I will tell you about when we went to the Carolina coast and you said mama for the first time under the Spanish moss. Your hands were sticky with maple syrup and you already had the scent of the ocean on your skin. It was that same trip that you stood on your own. Your sand-covered feet pressing into the shore, your squinty smile in the paper white sun, the look of delight on your face as you discovered your balance, your strength.
I can name each and every moment. They said, don’t blink. I didn’t. I didn’t miss it. I remember all of it, and yet, I can’t believe we’re already here. Summer’s end. You’re less me and more you. Soon the birds will be gone. Millions of birds migrate through these blue mountains under the cover of darkness. We close our curtains and turn off our lights as the Swamp Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and the Indigo Bunting begin their departure for the Southern hemisphere.
On the first day of fall, we walk by the river and I tell you about the Indigo Bunting. How its shimmering blue feathers make it look like a scrap of sky, and how their feathers aren’t actually blue at all. They lack blue pigment and their sapphire color comes instead from microscopic arrangements in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the tiny airborne particles that make the sky look blue and the scattering of light that creates the blue haze over these mountains of the south we now call home.
I tell you about this blue bird that isn’t actually blue and how they use the stars to navigate their way home. Forever guided. They always know the way. What will you be guided by, my darling? When you leave, will you know how to find your way back to me? Will you rest with your head in my lap and say nothing and everything while the air holds blue?
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