November 10, 2013

Wild Animals: One Mom on Holding On and Letting Go

Dinner on a weekday means this: something basic, something hearty yet fast, like soup with a slice of unbuttered bread, because the moment I am up and at the kitchen counter--my face four feet from his face, my hands not tickling the length of his wiggly body--my almost-nine-month-old son is at my legs, standing and pulling and leaning against them, his faultless countenance a half bowl of instinct and need. He wants to be held. It is both beautiful and heart-wrenching, the way he grips after me.

"Elliot," I say to him, reaching under the nests of his arms, lifting him like a bird before settling him on my hip, pecking his nose, calming him instantly. "Baby, you're fine. Haven't I told you before? In this northern savanna, there are no cheetahs."

Of course, he thinks I'm hilarious. Which is one of the thousand reasons why I keep lifting him up, holding him close, stirring the soup with one hand, not buttering the bread.


About a month ago, though, there had been enough soup. So in the first truly cold hours of Autumn, our breath smoking out ahead of us into the night, my husband and I left Elliot already sleeping in the care of a dear friend, and drove toward a different kind of dinnertime. 

We took G's car. We blasted the heat. Turned up the music. And as we drove down the highway, we started laughing, just laughing, because it seemed so funny, for it to be the two of us, in this small car with manual locks--less safe, more young, another life--a vehicle we hadn't ridden in together, we realized, since before our child was born. We held hands and laughed, the headlights illuminating the pavement ahead of us, the backseat as dark and carefree as it had always been.

At dinner there was no plastic. Instead: glass. Instead: china. Sharp silverware. A white tablecloth. We enjoyed a series of focused and sustained conversations about politics and music and teaching philosophies. Everything we ordered included artfully prepared, fresh salmon. We ate at a leisurely pace and finished at the same time.

"This is nice," G said.

And yes. That night we were a strange mix of earlier yet older versions of ourselves. We knew a child's weight--that solid force we had learned to carry. But for those few hours we could let ourselves be free of it. We could just be us. And there was a slight shock at the buoyancy that came from such a letting go.

For a while, we reveled in that lightness. We remembered Costa Rica and Strasbourg and the first time we had sushi together back in 2004, after I'd picked him up from the airport and before we'd returned to my apartment in a small midwestern town.

And then, long before we needed to, we went home to Elliot. There was suddenly nothing we wanted more than to be close.


Some mornings I wake before my alarm, the day still pregnant and dark, and instead of sleeping I wait. I am eager and grateful and I wait.

When this waiting gives way to weight, I bring my twenty pounds of boy into bed, and the room is lit with the energy of him shifting between his father and me. "Dadt, Dadt, Dadt," he says over and over. He buries his face against G's neck, offers up a contented sigh that is otherworldly. Then he raises his head and finds me, grins bodily at six in the morning as only a child can, and launches himself into my chest. I wrap him up. I rock him. G caresses the top of his head, squeezes the pads of his feet. If he had the words, I swear, our son would speak a steady stream of "hold me, Mama, hold me and hold me and hold me."

That is what I hear anyhow, in the way he moves. And the happiness is such that I would give up buttered bread and even fresh salmon for the rest of my life if it meant he would always fall into my arms like this, if my presence would always be enough, the thing to turn toward, reach for, the answer. No where else, not even in the arms of our lovers, can we ever hope or want to be so complete.

"Elliot," I whisper. I can feel the fullness and firmness of his cheek against me. "Baby, can you remember the moment when Mama held you for the very first time?"

He pushes up to sitting, looks at me wide-eyed. Even in the muted tones of early morning, I am amazed at how much of everything his eyes take in. What were those eyes, what substance, when he was just that speck of cells, floating inside me, held onto by my heart?

He doesn't answer, of course, and of course--perhaps inevitably, in spite of the person I am, with so many intentions of marking moments and sifting out significance--I don't even consider what comes next with anything but pride. 

First he wiggles in the way he does when he wants to move. So I hold out my hands, and he grabs them, pushes himself onto his feet.

"Dadt!" he says again, grinning at his papa.

And then all at once, for two or three bright seconds that intimate so much that is just ahead, El looks back at me and releases his grip on my fingers. Just lets go. 

We gasp. We cheer. We clap our hands. We will cheer him on for the rest of his life. It is instinct and need. Beautiful and heart-wrenching. A lesson I'll realize I've been taught after it's already passed. Notice: I did not say learned. From this side of nine months, I can't imagine I will ever feel adept at releasing something so precious. Instead, I will no doubt find myself waiting at the window some cold November night, imagining wild animals, a blanket wrapped around my arms for warmth.