The toys piled up, evidence being submitted to prove an absent mother’s love.
The colorful trading cards were those warm hugs that were never given, the video-game cassettes in the dozens were those sleepless feverish nights forgotten, and the tiny cars that scuttled across the linoleum threatening to trip adult feet were those lullabies that fell silent. I wanted to prove I loved my toddler son, still too young to understand that I needed those hours away to pay the rent.
“When are you going to quit your job?” he would ask now and then, choosing a quiet moment he knows will get my full attention.
This is a serious question to be contended with. I want to cry. I would quit right now, if I could. But I don’t know how to tell him that.
His legs are starting to break out in hives, and because he scratches at his raw skin with his little clawlike nails, his calves are constantly bleeding.
Once I got a call from the social welfare office, wondering what’s going on. The doctor that I take him to for these allergies, as that’s what it is that is causing this itching, is giving me funny stares.
“My mommy doesn’t come home for a loooooong loooooong time,” I hear my son telling the doctor in his usual high-pitched singsong voice.
I was able to take some time off work the first few years after his birth. I dutifully followed the advice of La Leche League to breast-feed him as long as he wanted, or almost as long as he wanted, which turned out to be two years, after which I had to decide this was it.
He would cuddle next to my breast, sucking although he had grown to be more a little boy than a baby, staring into my eyes with total trust and the glee of possession, sometimes biting my nipple with his teeth or pulling with clamped lips until I had to ask him to stop. His looks said he was proud to have this privilege, especially because he no longer needed the nourishment.
A woman who happened to walk by remarked, “Oh, you are not working? So he doesn’t know the reality that is waiting for him; does he?”
I clearly remember the I-know-it-all expression of superiority on her face as though she had appointed herself a shaman fortune-teller, as do all those working women who went before me.
At least, they get to do that _ tell others what’s coming.
Even after my son started school, he didn’t really have a mother. I found out his friends were asking him: “Do you have a mother?”
It was a cruel, brutally straightforward question that children have a way of coming up with, but it was a valid question.
If others had moms picking them up and making nice lunches, and he didn’t, where was this mother?
Where was I for this child? Did this make me really a mother? Did I just want a child so I could have a child but without doing the job of being a mother?
I had to wipe the thought out of my mind when I was working. I had to forget.
Forgetting, you’d think, is something that happens naturally, what you thought you had tucked away in memory, some fold in your gray matter, slipping away. Oh, I forgot. But this was a different kind of forgetting.
It took a lot of concentration. But I was able to forget. If I did not forget, I would have lost my mind.
But I did forget.
But was this child able to forget?
Or did he have to fight the gnawing loneliness with all his might, fighting back tears and telling himself: “My mommy doesn’t come home for a loooooong loooooong time,” over and over?
It makes me afraid.
I cannot imagine such loneliness. To be a child and not have a mother. To be that tiny dot in the sky like a star all by itself in the universe and not know what is up or down, or if and when this horror will ever end.
To know not only that you are alone but that you are alone in this loneliness, that every other boy and girl had a mommy, that soft warm cuddly woman who came to pick kids up and made nicely decorated lunches.
How could a little mind forget? Even with all the colorful cards, games and tiny cars, reminding you that I do love you, how could he ever forget?
In his high school, there was one day hot lunch was not served, some strange practice to encourage parent-child bonding. My son didn’t even tell me.
I happened to see him jump into a convenience store to buy his lunch. That’s how I found out.
I felt a hot gush of guilt and sorrow as though it was enveloping me from the top of my head, the strange feeling I felt when I watched my father eat or my sister cry over nothing, when I was growing up.
I still have not figured out what this emotion meant. It tasted sour, like tiny pieces of glass, inside my mouth.