by Sallie Tisdale
Daily, we leave jobs, friends, lovers… but the child always comes along
The first section of this essay is one of the first essays I wrote, at the age of 22. I added to it – and subtracted – over many years, and finally found a way to put the pieces of my son’s life into an order that made sense to me. Into an image that made sense to me – because even now, when he is in his late 30s, I can run my hand over the scar and feel its shape and texture. That skin is not the same as it was before he was born. – Sallie Tisdale
Four years ago he was born and everything changed. Daily, we leave jobs, friends, lovers, but the child always comes along. When the going gets rough, my son and I can’t call it quits and cut our losses. I can’t pack a bag, make a break for it, find a more compatible child. The contract cannot be broken.
We are strangely entangled. When I wake from a bad dream without a sound, he wakes in the next room and cries for me. Between us, there is no shame, no holding back. I take risks with him I wouldn’t dare take with anyone else. I treat him with rough impatience, with all the bile I hide from friends and lovers for fear of losing them. I am less tolerant of deviation, more injured by separation. We fight and then make up with a tentative, weary kiss. I demand so much: loyalty, obedience, faith. And he gives me all I demand, and more – he thinks me beautiful; he wants to grow up to be just like me. And I am bound to fail him, and bound to lose him.
Strangers’ hands will stroke where I stroke now, and already I’m jealous of this secret future apart from me. I quail at the mistakes I’m bound to make, what I’ll saddle him with, what the price for each of us will finally be. For nothing is free.
Daily, the gap between us grows, in tiny steps. He is not mindful of it – but I am. Oh, I am. I’ll give the world a son, heavy with the grief of giving him at all. Then and after, he’ll drift in and out of my view, keeping secrets, neglecting me, while I watch from a distance, unrequited.
My mother shows up, startling me. When I speak to my son, I repeat what she told me, the phrases and platitudes, in the same tone of voice and inflection I heard as a child. She is my forebearer; I am his inheritance, and will prevail despite his efforts. Years from now I’ll show up, a sudden surprise.
Could my own mother have felt this fierce love for me? I treat her so casually. If she ever felt this way, it seems she should be grieved – bereft by my distance. Can it be that she misses me? We don’t speak of such things: our closest contacts are narrowly averted, sudden swerves from danger. Will it be the same for my son and me, the boy who now crawls like a spoiled child-prince across my lap?
He’s tall now, and lean: when he comes running toward me, breathless from some grand injustice or new idea, I see his ribs pressing against the skin, light and shadow. He takes deep, thoughtless breaths, free of blemish, taut and promising. He has my brother’s face, a handsome face, and he wears his lucky muscles with negligence and not a whit of gratitude. He is eight years old.
Sudden sufficiency. What binds us is less visible, as though we’d been cloven in two. I would not have thought it possible to feel so halved. I can wonder now what it is like to be him – wonder and know I’ll never know. What does he think in a privacy I can hardly bear, a privacy that seems entirely unfair? I am still the dictator of this tiny country; he is still my subject, but he dreams of revolution.
I may not kiss him in front of others anymore. He holds the car door for me, calls me “Ma’am,” with a giggle. He has great white teeth, dark circles below his eyes, a scratch on his cheek, dirt in the lines of his neck. He wants his hair cut “like Elvis Presley,” he wants it cut “like Michael Jackson,” he wants a Mohawk. He sings commercial jingles for hamburgers and jeans and toothpaste while he builds elaborate block constructions; he strews his room with Viewmasters and action figures (“They’re not dolls, Mom,” he says in irritation) and books and dirty socks and sheets. He is, above all, busy; I am tired.
“You are,” he tells me, “more beautiful than the women in Playboy,” and he’s out the door before I can ask where he saw Playboy.
How does he know the exact inflection? He has the same disgust and injured dignity I felt all those years ago, dying a thousand deaths in the face of my mother’s twittering concerns. He comes into his own and it is my turn to be out-of-date, to be shocked, to drone on long after he ceases to hear me.
I am, he tells me, so old.
The neighbor boys tease him and he runs home in a paroxysm of despair: “No one likes me,” he sobs, and lends to his crying a thorough attention. What courage children have. I lead him to the dentist and he climbs shakily in the great chair, looks at me and asks me to spare him this. I won’t; seeing my refusal, he turns away. He wants me to keep him a baby, he doesn’t know that I would if I could. Already I am separate. He looks at me and sees – only me.
He is an infant again, arms around my thighs, moaning with love, whining for cereal, a story, my lap. But he’s too lanky, too long, for my lap; his elbows get in the way of the book. Then he looks for the mysterious pleasures of adulthood: freedom, mobility, explanations. But his brow furrows when he calculates the cost.
At night, he is drenched in protest. He licks his teeth clean, stumbles out of the bathroom in a dirty t-shirt and yesterday’s underwear; crawls over the mess on the floor of his room, and hides his stuffed bunny shamefully under the covers. I wait. And when he falls into the humid sleep of children, that greenhouse dark, I slip stealthily in beside him and stroke his honey hair. He sprawls out, clutching the bunny; I balance on the edge, listening to the ruffled quiver of his breaths. I stroke the fear; my fear, of his life, his death. When I contemplate the space he takes up, how vast its emptiness would be, my heart shakes like a rabbit in the jaws of the wolf. I watch his face turned soft with sleep, the smile that skips across his face as he turns smug and safe, and I can see that he’s dreaming. He dreams without me now; we dream different dreams.
The balance is shifting. I withdraw sometimes; I want to read my book or be alone when he craves my attention. He will always live with me, he says, or perhaps next door. A transparent gift of beauty is evolving in his bones and skin, beauty made of equal parts grace and pain; I see that he will have a face of triumphant perfection if he wants. And I see the bruises rising under his skin from life’s blows. I know he won’t live next door, and I’m glad. I don’t think I can bear to watch. Right now, I can’t remember life without him – I can’t remember myself without him, but the time will come.
I put my book aside and wander to his room to watch him play. I find him reading a book, curled in a corner. “Would you mind leaving, Mom?” he says, hardly glancing up. “I feel like being alone.”
I wait in the car in the grocery store parking lot, watching the bright automatic doors in my rearview mirror. It is almost ten o’clock at night, much later than usual for me to be out shopping. For 15 years, I’ve been confined to childish hours. But everything changes.
I see him walk out the middle set of doors, which slide silently apart and then close behind him. He is tall, several inches taller than me, slender, graceful, arrogant. He wears his thick hair in a high tuft, dyed boot-black, and his black leather silver-studded jacket swings open with each long step.
I used to have crushes on boys like him.
We all have blows – we learn to expect a few, to roll in the force of life’s first. That awful job, that last paycheck, the broken heart, the broken nose. All the broken promises no one has even made yet – wounds that can’t be helped. I don’t have to fear failing him anymore – I already have. What’s done is done.
But I hadn’t expected this. I hadn’t expected to be knocked to my knees in grief when he marches out after I tell him to stay, when he slams the door and disappears, and I drive through dark streets seeking him, and find him smoking in the park with the silent, leggy girlfriend who won’t speak to me at all. I draw myself up, demand decency, respect; they stare, and whisper to each other.
And I hadn’t expected the sorry business of petty crime. He’s been arrested for shoplifting – for stealing candy bars, for stealing cigarettes, for stealing condoms. I drive to juvenile hall again and face the disapproving eyes behind bulletproof glass, and sign the papers, and wait outside until I’m joined by a raggedy, rude, foul-mouthed boy I hardly know. We drive home in silence and as we walk in the door I tell him to wash the dishes and he says, “No,” and I say it again and he refuses again and then adds, mockingly, “And I don’t want to have to say it again.” And suddenly I’m soaked with white rage, a face-slapping high-dive, and I’m inches from his face brandishing the nearest object, yelling, ‘Don’t you dare, don’t you dare, don’t you dare speak to me that way.’
When we’re calm, I can see he thinks I miss the point, the urgent momentum of growing up. I seem to have no ground, nothing to rely upon. He calls me a “disagreeable old hag” at the dinner table and suddenly it makes me laugh. It’s so absurd. I saw my parents’ anguish in my own small crimes from a cool distance; I remember their stupefaction. I drew up painful words for them deliberately like poison into a syringe. Children grow into strangers who disappoint and perplex us, having long wakened to disillusionment with us. They seem oblivious to our loss – after all, they’ve lost nothing.
We are their parents. And now it’s my turn and I am so sorry now for what I did then.
He disappears for three days and I cannot find him. The fear is horrible, sickening; the remorse and guilt meaningless, confused. Then his girlfriend’s mother calls me to tell me he’s staying there because we “kicked him out,” and I try to tell her it’s not true, to send him home so he will work it out with me, and she refuses. She believes him, his tales. I ask her not to shelter him from this.
“I’m going to take care of him,” she tells me. “I like him.” When he finally returns, we fight round after round, and there’s no bell. Every victory is a Pyrrhic victory. ‘Baby,’ I want to say, ‘baby love, I don’t know what to do. Show me what to do.’ Harsh words again, the stomp of heavy boots up the stairs. From two floors above me, he lets loose a deep-throated cry, an animal cry, and then the noise of something heavy thrown with what seems an irrevocable, rending crash.
Like all the other scars, this one is slowly filling in, closing off. Scars may be tender, or numb, but they are always there. Scars change the shape of things – they wrinkle, tighten, shorten things. I brought this person into the world and everything turned upside-down and all that’s happened since has been in some way connected to that event, his birth. The parent-child bond, I know, is truly bondage, and its end is in many ways a liberation, an enormous relief. Here he comes, hat in hand, to claim himself and go.
He is 19, towering above me, his voice booming on the telephone. He is gorgeous. He is not a virgin; he admits that he is in love. He is kind to his little sister, worries about his carefree brother. Every day, changes: he drops out of high school, grabs a quick diploma at the community college, makes plans, finds a job, is shockingly responsible. He gets a checking account and an 800 number and big ideas: conspiracy theories and politics, tales of hidden alien artifacts and government cabals. His union goes on strike and he walks the picket line with all the other working men. He is righteous, indignant, a defender of the weak, and I bite my lip not to laugh and cry at once; oh god, it’s the way I was at 19, it’s exactly the way I was.
He absents himself delicately from my life.
One day he stops me in the hall, without warning, dragging his foot and looking at the floor, and mumbles, “I’m sorry,” and I ask him for what and he says, “Because I was so hard,” and without meeting my eyes, he reaches down from his height to hug me awkwardly and adds, “I love you, Mom,” and dashes down the stairs and is gone, again.
Sallie Tisdale’s essay Scars won the CASE National Gold Medal for feature writing in the United States. Reprinted from Violation: Collected essays by Sallie Tisdale (Hawthorne Books). Originally published in Portland Magazine, winter 2003.