While we are brushing teeth at bedtime, I somehow manage to elbow Bug in the face. I feel the crack, and immediately pull him into my soft belly. A split second passes and then he is wailing. Hot tears and even hotter anger seep through my shirt.
“I’m sorry, baby. Goodness gracious, that must hurt. I’m sorry.”
He howls into my side. “It’s your fault, Mommy!” Choking sobs. “It’s all your fault!”
I call down the stairs and ask my mother to bring us the ice pack from the freezer. She hands it up to us and I talk softly to Bug, finding a pillowcase to wrap around the pack. Bug is still clinging to me, yelling, “It’s your fault!”
“Yep, it is,” I say. I help him press the ice to his cheek then have him put on his jammies. I fill a mug with cool water for his bedside table. “It was an accident. I am sorry.” He keeps crying and scowling as the spot under his eye puffs to an angry pink. He reminds me about two dozen more times that I am to blame for his misery. I concede this fact.
Here is tonight’s small victory: My son does not hit me. He does not bite, kick, spit, or butt me in the face with the back of his head.
“Can I have paper for writing?” He asks. I dig up a clipboard from the clutter in his room. We crawl into bed and I begin to read as he writes on his paper with a thick red marker. Halfway through the first book, Bug interrupts me. “That’s you, Mommy.” I look over and see he has drawn on the far left of his page a frowning stick figure with a distressed look. I am impressed with the expressiveness of the eyebrows.
“That looks like a mean mommy,” I say.
“It is,” he says. He returns to drawing. I keep reading. After the next book, I look over again. He has filled in the page with two more stick figures. “Now you are sad,” he tells me, pointing to my double.
“Is that you with an angry face?” I ask.
“Yeah. I am punching you.”
“Oh. I see now.” He marks in little teardrops falling from the mommy’s eyes. “She seems pretty upset,” I say. “And he looks mad.” He draws the two faces again at the top of the page. One is crying and one is scowling. When he puts the cap back on the marker, I tap the page. “You know what you did, kiddo? You told your feelings to this picture.”
Bug reaches over and gives me the gentlest of swats on the shoulder. “Now I did the same thing to you for real,” he says.
I let it go. So does he. He pulls the page from the clipboard and drops it off the side of the bed. He starts practicing his letters. I start on the third book.
After we are finished reading, I tuck him against me into a full-body hug and sing “Baby Beluga.” My son’s new favorite approach to cuddling is to slip his arm under my neck and pull my head down on his chest. He wraps his hand around my shoulder and strokes my hair. It is an odd juxtaposition, my son holding me against him the way I have held him for so many years. I feel small and safe. I feel gigantic and cumbersome. I feel the echo of my voice off his fragile ribs and his unbroken heart.
Downstairs, I hear Giovanni come to drop off the dog. Her nails tippy-tap on the kitchen tile, a staccato counterpoint to the thundering footsteps of my parents as they wash up the dinner dishes and stash away the pizza stone. Bug’s schoolwork is on the kitchen table awaiting his teacher’s smiley-face sticker. A truck roars past on the muggy street outside. The air conditioner hums to life. The presidential debates begin.
I sing “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and Bug sings along, his voice fading.
There’s a lake of stew and ginger ale too,
you can paddle all around it in a big canoe
He is under before I reach the end, but I finish anyway. I stay there for a few moments. His hand is against my ear, fingers tangled in my hair. He holds me as close as he can even in his sleep.
My son was angry at me. For the first time in 5 years and 363 days, he told me about it with words and art instead of with his hands.
So often, I sense the hugeness of the task ahead. Survive, save, support my child, teach him well, build a future. It is daunting. It can be very lonesome.
Tonight, I can feel my son’s strong pulse against my cheek. All around, the world goes on. It sometimes happens that in all that going on, people help. Sometimes, someone takes care of something that need taking care of. Someone walks the dog. Brings the ice pack. Pays the mortgage. Teaches the kids. Runs the country.
Sometimes, I can whisper my boy through his storm of feelings precisely because I am not alone.
What a revelation.
Sometimes, I am not alone.