Children happened to me when I least expected it. This is not to say that my children were unintentional, far from it. They were fully intentional, fought for when the time came. Yearned for, cried for, a cause for sleepless nights when it looked like they might not be ours one day.
My oldest -- big-headed baby, fair-skinned, orange-haired. Blue eyes. When I looked into his eyes I thought of my great-grandmother who, I heard, always thought blue eyes and red hair was the most beautiful combination in the world. I remember this because my eyes are green. And not a beautiful green like clover or emeralds, but green like olives. I hate olives.
My youngest -- little angry grunter. My Romeo with his coal black eyes and eyelashes long enough to scrape the underside of the moon. I watch him work his magic with the ladies and see my future... unwilling confidante to broken-hearted girls whose calls he won't take.
When my oldest began to transition from baby to toddler, maybe a bit older, I went into a bit of a funk. I adored this precious baby and he was leaving me, growing into something different, someone different. I loved the new guy, but missed the old guy, even grieved for him at times.
Suddenly I didn't see the point of motherhood. You have this blessing come upon you, care for him, let him consume you, turn your life upside down and suddenly in 18 years which seems more like 18 hours he is packing his toothbrush, his clothes, his favorite book, his condoms for heaven's sake! And you stand on the porch crying because he's leaving you. He'll head off into his life and you hope he will be a fabulous human being and you hope he will leave the world a better place than it was when he came into it, but the more likely scenario is that he will just be another mediocre human being with a big carbon footprint who forgets to call you on Mother's Day. Or worse.
During this time I was on a phone call with my husband's mother and I asked her. How does she reconcile that her son is all grown up? How can she bear that her little boy doesn't exist anymore? Does she miss him terribly? Does she grieve for him?
I could tell by the silence on the other end of the phone that she was bewildered by the question. And subsequently I felt stupid and filled with regret that I'd even asked.
So, I put it out of my mind, or tried to, for months, then years. In unguarded moments the thought would peek around the corner like an evil leprechaun and plague me with more visions of crying on the porch. Eventually, my second son arrived and there were so many new challenges. No time to do much but put one foot in front of the other and keep on moving.
In the eighth year of motherhood, I was sitting on a hot concrete bench cooking up a dose of melanoma under my generous helping of freckles. In front of me was a baseball field covered with boys of all shapes and sizes. At my feet my youngest, age four, plowed a fire truck through the dirt. On the field was my oldest boy, heading up to bat.
With a crack, the ball he hit sailed through the air and a cheer went up from all the moms and dads and coaches. He began to run. First base, second base, then something went wrong. I don't even remember now what it was because what happened next knocked every memory of that moment out of my head except one.
I see the image of him kicking up dirt as he grimly shuffles off the field to the dugout. One of the coaches catches him just as he crosses the baseline but before he can reach the dugout. He grabs him by the shoulders and squares him up until their noses are about two inches apart.
I scooted to the edge of my seat ready, at the slightest provocation, to fly up on that coach like the most insane soccer-mom banshee from Hell. The coach started in. "Do you know what you did wrong?" My son nodded and looked down at the ground.
With a gentle shake of my son's shoulders he commanded eye contact. In the background I heard another crack of ball against bat and a cheer. It drowned out the conversation that held me, but suddenly the image was transformed for me. This man, talking to my son as he would speak to another man, demanding in a respectful way that he do his best, that he be his best, that he be a good team member, that he rise to meet challenges.
My fair-skinned boy with his delicate dusting of freckles, sun-kissed, set his lips determinedly. He nodded at whatever the coach had to say then stood an inch or two taller.
And then I saw it -- I saw the layers of him -- the baby, the toddler, the pre-schooler, the boy who graduated from kindergarten, the one who learned to read, the one who lost his baby teeth, the one who made it halfway to Home after hours and hours of batting practice. They were all there, transparent, three-dimensional, like nesting dolls.
The reason my question was so ridiculous, so alien is because my mother-in-law knew, but couldn't explain, that you don't have to grieve for your loss because there is no loss. This boy is just layers, like a rich archaeological dig, the sum of those layers of love, of discipline, of fun times, of hard times, of learning and experiences.
I watched the coach slap him on the back and send him into the dugout where he was jostled by his friends, all elbows and nudges. I smiled and drew circles in the dirt with my foot next to the roads my youngest was carving out with his truck.
"Yer messin' up my roads, Mom."
During the next round of batting my oldest was up to bat again. I was awash with a new found serenity. He sidled up to the plate and planted his feet squarely, rocking back and forth to get his perfect balance. Elbows up, a couple test swings. He nodded to the pitcher. Ready.
The ball flew, the bat sped forward, the batter's form poetry as metal met leather and with a loud pop the ball torpedoed between flailing players desperate to catch the ball.
My son began to run and I began to cheer. I cheered for him, but I think now I might have been cheering more for me, for us, for a future free of looking back with sadness, but now only fondness, at worst -- nostalgia. I cheered as he veered across second and didn't slow a beat, just like Coach had taught him. On to third, the coaches screamed for him to run. A slight pause rounding third and I slid forward on that hot, rough, blazing bench. Halfway to home, he turned to look back. The ball was coming, coming straight for him, coming straight for home.
I leaped up and ran to the fence, hooking my fingers through the chain link and screamed, "Run run RUN! AND DON'T LOOK BACK!"
As he crossed home plate, I cheered for him, for us and his hands flew up into the air and he whooped.
And I whooped. Because that was the day I stopped looking back.