I woke a few Sunday mornings ago out of a long, awful dream. In my dream there was a phone call. "This can't be good," I thought, much as I think in my waking life when the phone rings at unexpected hours. The dream call informed me in a maddeningly roundabout manner that my son had been in a wreck and was braindead in the hospital. I spent the remainder of the dream steeped in grief, imagining the terror of his last moments.
Imagining terror and rehearsing grief have been part of my experience of being a mother. I think I have been a good enough mother to use psychoanalyst David Winicott's famous, exculpatory phrase, but just barely. I have spent a great deal of energy struggling against the pull of the quicksand vortex of deep, biological maternal attachment. This has alternated with near-drowning experiences, both voluntary and involuntary.
In April of 2000 I wrote a poem about a perverse permutation of maternal terror.
It was midwinter. They were driving north.
He’d insisted, "We’ve got to get away."
She’d been too tired to argue. They’d left late,
well past two. The snow was early, though,
and heavier than promised. She spread the map.
Twelve miles, two fingers. "I need a drink. Bad"
Word games bored him. Numbers hurt her head.
They’d exhausted Alphabet and License Plate
by the Hookset Tolls, and didn’t speak
another word until Laconia
where white noise swamped the final carsick notes
of Nashua’s disco hits. Stayin alive, stay--
Milestones. It was their first. Paper, or clocks.
Their gifts -- a watch, a paperback on Zen.
For her, all time had stopped. He never read.
Would they see cotton, china ? She doubted it.
They’d skipped straight to the transuranials.
Steel and lace ? Just fetishes, she thought.
He glanced. “Let’s play -- you know.” Of course she knew.
The perfect night for it. The headlights skimmed
through 3-D screeds of snow hardbound in rock.
Cold, the small car shrunk. “I’m listening.”
He smiled and gripped the wheel. She closed her eyes.
Behind her lids, commas on vellum, ghosts,
scythed the textless afterdark. He cleared
his throat, began, “It was pure white, small,
long as a man’s forearm, no wider than
a woman’s waist, and lined with satin, blue,
baby blue, which was soft, of course, smooth, cool,
and almost pleasant to the touch, I’d say,
almost. Let’s see. White, small, blue-satin lined --
and light ! Did I mention light ? So light it weighed
close to nothing, even with its charge
of 6 pounds, less probably, who’d think
to weigh such a thing, then, you know, given,
well, the circumstances.” She watched the snow
gather to a prism, titanium white,
on velvet black, yes, that was it, she felt
it starting, the ecstatic scour that rose
through pelvis, chest and throat toward her eyes.
“Yes,” she said, “yes.” He continued. “Look,
now, look right inside the thing. That’s it.
See ? See ? So pale, and small. Could it be sleep ?
Sleep on a soft, blue cloud ? A lidded dream-
lessness ? Look, look -- the nails -- ten tiny moons
are sinking, setting, watch, soon they’ll be gone.”
“Oh God!” she sobbed, collapsing to the dash.
He chuckled, and downshifted for a patch
of black ice. Ten miles to go. The Old Man
of the Mountain Inn had a nice buffet.
They’d make it just in time. The motor purred.
Shrimp, prime rib. Roasted red baby bliss.
In the back seat, jarred from his long nap, wet,
their florid infant wailed for milk, more milk.
In the past few years, four young men just my son's age have died -- two were my son's close friends, two were the sons of colleagues of mine. I carry these deaths around as an awful reminder: this could happen to my son. . This could happen. This could happen. I await the midnight phone call. As I hear his car pull out of the driveway, I wince, girding myself for the inevitable, lethal crash. Or I launch myself into the future -- years after my death -- and imagine the worst, my son alone and abandoned, sick, homeless, in despair. After my son's birth, I became obsessed with the Holocaust, wrote poem after poem about Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents. In my car, I listen to Kindertotenlieder, to version after version of Absolom, My Son, My Son; to Barber's Hermit Song, O Swan, with it's exquisite depiction of Mary's grief; to a heartbreaking lieder in which Nancy Hanks asks after her son Abe from beyond the grave.
As I watch my son struggle to find his way in the world, I ask, after Julian of Norwich, "Will all be well ?" And, saying the Evening Office, I gravitate toward the collect that asks -- defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. Here on earth, it seems, it is all too often perilous night, out of whose depths we cry and cry to Thee.
After my mother in law's funeral, one of her accomplished circle of psychoanalytic friends bustled up to me.
"So how's the poetry going ?" he asked, hale and buoyant.
Once again I regretted not having developed a witty set piece -- "Why I Am No Longer Writing Poetry" -- to trot out on such occasions s these. Instead, I muttered that I was, uh, well, taking pictures now.
"Aha," he said, beaming. Had I heard of X, the famous Boston portrait photographer ?
"No," I replied. I hadn't heard of X the famous Boston portrait photographer. I sighed inwardly. I didn't have the energy to explain. I take pictures of weeds. That's it. Weeds. How do I explain that and not appear to be a madwoman ? The conversation was going badly enough. I was not passing any muster whatsoever here.
"So what's your son doing ?" asked the professor, generously extending me the opportunity to redeem myself in reflected glory. My son. Yes, well. Still trying finding his way in the world at 26. OK.
"Ah, well, he's a bit of a ... lost soul," I mumbled.
"Law School ?" chirped the professor, beaming approval.
Lost soul, law school. No, that conversation did not go well at all. But it's spring, and there are babies everywhere, and thank God for that. There are baby weeds, and baby flowers, and baby ducks and baby humans and they gladden even old crusty me. My priest -- young enough to be my daughter -- has returned after having her own baby, just in time for my confirmation. The baby, named for a prophet, is adorable. At his baptism I thought: When he is confirmed, I will be seventy one years old.
Seventy one !
If male priests are called Father, I asked her once in confirmation class, should I call her, then, Mother ? She replied that although it was not customary in this part of the country, women priests are sometimes called Mother.
So, on her first Sunday back, as I kneeled at the altar rail awaiting the Eucharist, a sudden ictus of motherdaughterliness overcame me: I was about to be fed, Mothered, both by new Mom Rev. I., and by Christ. What act is more emblematic of mother-and-child love than feeding ? I felt tears welling up. Properly canonical tears, I might add, as there are several alternate canticles for Morning Prayer that use maternal language, two from Julian of Norwich
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and eternal life.
We are all bound to God by nature,
and we are all bound to God by grace
and this grace is for all the world
because it is our precious mother, Christ.
and this one from Anselm of Canterbury
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you,
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Since my mother's death I've been puzzled that I have not been more, well, emotional. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. She and I are much alike: reticent, reserved, quiet, cool, slightly disembodied, and, as I wrote in another old poem, my manifesto, "Wallflower in the Amazon," -- all North, all head. Since her death, I have had a vague sense of searching for her. In the small jar of ashes on my bureau. In the photo of her behind it, taken 2 months before she died.
In the nubbly, brown sweater of hers that my father gave me and that I've been wearing. In old poems. I could even search for her in the 35 volumes of journals hidden away on the top shelf my closet, were I able to bring myself to open these.
Looking for my mother after she's dead. How typical !
My Dad is a hugger. My mother and I are peckers of cheeks. There was always a slight distance between us. It was just the way we were, it couldn't be helped, and it was fine by us. I have often looked at other mother-daughter dyads with amazement -- embroiled, entangled, volatile, enmeshed, even fiery. I suspect we both longed for some of heat. But it just wasn't in our DNA.
So was this my untapped pool of grief and longing, these tears at being fed ?
I share an office with my nurse colleague. She is an outstanding nurse, the true backbone of the clinic, smart, meticulous, compassionate, professional. When she is on duty the clinic feels like a ship guided by the firm hand of a master pilot. When she's not on the premises I feel imperiled. One late afternoon not so long ago, probably the end of a long, difficult day, I caught myself glancing under her desk to see whether her bag was still there, a sign that this was not her day to leave early, a sign that she was still present. It was there, and an oddly familiar sense of reassurance and relief flooded me. Suddenly, I remembered something from distant childhood, how, when I was four or five years old, I unable to fall sleep unless I knew my mother was awake and keeping vigil: the light from down the hall would reassure me she was there.
From, "A Short History Of Sleep"
She promised to stay awake until I slept,
to sit in the living room, beneath the lamp.
I had to promise not to leave my bed.
Lamplight filled the slit beneath my door.
That strip of light became my mother,
smoking, eating oranges, keeping watch.
The night I broke my promise she was transformed
into an empty chair. I watched her fall
back past the salty light, into the hell
from which my father, in his red PJs,
his hair sleep-tousled into angry horns,
would soon erupt, seething, promising
(as even good enough fathers sometimes do)
to give me something to cry about.
That's what the good enough mother does: first she holds her infant close, then sits vigil just long enough to imbue the very light of the household with her reassuring presence. The empty chair was not a betrayal. It was a necessary lesson. Psychoanalysts call this process internalizing the mother, and, of course, it can be for good or for ill.
A later, but not much later, memory: I am stocking the basket of my bicycle with food. Campbells' Chicken Noodle Soup, canned baby peas, Bumblebee Tuna. I am filled with a sense of self-sufficiency: I could strike out on my own into the world and survive. All would be well. My mother asks what I am doing, and seems a bit miffed. Was I trying to run away ?
No, no, I reassure her. Just playing. Just rehearsing what she had taught me.
Last week I drove to the top of Prospect Hill to photograph weeds. It was a late Sunday morning, cloudy and cool, and even cooler on the hilltop than in my back yard. I shivered and I looked into my cluttered backseat: yes, I was prepared. There was an old sweater, balled up in the corner. I put it on and I was instantly warm enough. I felt an absurd happiness completely disproportionate to the occasion. All was and would be well, even here, on the wind scoured plateau between dead mother and imperiled son.
There, amidst the daisies and towering mustards, the peppercress and spiderworts, the honey locust blossoms and new milkweed, I thought about my mother. I thought about the Mother from whom we both emerged, and to Whom she had just and I would soon return.
Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
(Bunnies courtesy of The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd.)