I spent the morning running errands in the cold morning, and all morning I missed my son. I missed him tangibly, with my whole body. I went back to our apartment, lay down in my bed and slept restlessly, unsatisfied. In a time not so distant this feeling came in the absence of a partner – the familiar weight of a hand resting on my skin or the intimacy of common experience. Now my loyalty rises to this: my only son and the imperfect family that we are. This apartment does not comfort me as a home does without his chubby fingers pulling open the cabinet doors, without the sound of small feet running unevenly, the questioning “Dhaa?” as he lifts a book to me.
I picked Joseph up from school and we went home to eat apple slices together at the kitchen table. We sat on the couch under a green army blanket and read the same two books again and again and I started to feel better. I had just wanted to be near him – separated I felt un-anchored, in danger of drifting off.
When I say it is time to go to bed he takes my first two knobby fingers in his little puffy red ones and waves goodnight to the kitchen table, to his bicycle and his books still lying open on the couch. He climbs into his bed and I kiss his cheek and then his head behind his ear. I read aloud as he drifts off beside me, his eyes blinking, and then closed, then his breathing slow and deep. I close the book and watch him breathe before returning to the other work that must be done.
This is the dream of motherhood, the world of magic we inhabit somewhere between the myth and this moment, where the love lifts us up as sparks from the bonfire reach up into the night.
I wake to a wailing cry and the hard knot in my stomach. He must be hurting but how can I know where? I sit impotently at his bedside, pushing my fingers through hair quickly matting dark with tears and sweat and snot. I lift him into my lap and he arranges himself in perfect symmetry, one little foot on either side of my hips, his ear pressed to the center of my chest where the bones push out against the skin. He sighs into quiet and then sleep.
When I wake again it is to excited babbling. He is talking quickly, “The sun is almost here, mama! Wake up! Let me tell you about my dream,” he seems to say. “Good morning bub,” I grab his head and kiss it. He flops on top of me, then picks his head up laughing. The windows are not yet light. We rise, boil water in a copper kettle, eat our breakfast of oatmeal from a blue bowl.
It is beginning to snow. I dress Joseph for school wondering if they will go outside, if he will be warm enough, if the other children are kind to him. I wondered how the mothers of this valley might have labored on a morning such as this, before there were windows out of which to watch the snow and all our artifices of security.
What work belonged to the native women of this valley? How did they carry their babies? Close to their bodies, under blankets and furs? I am driving us across the river, just downstream of the place where the Holston meets the French Broad. What if the bridges were gone? What if I couldn’t reach him? I see myself placing boots side by side on the frozen mud. I might not survive swimming the river, I think, but I would have to.
Love is at once mythological and ordinary. Today it is dressed in the trappings of school lunches, zipped jackets, bedtime rituals, but I know myself to be in the company of the Gods. Who was the first mother? I see Eve in the garden, eating an apple, waking up and remember the apple tossed into my backpack this morning – the one that was on sale last weekend when Joseph pushed the grocery cart between my feet.
Once, very pregnant, I squatted on a river bank and lifted the water to my face. I knew the geometry of that moment was sacred. In such a gesture I felt the strength of every woman squatted by the river, heavy with the weight of life, and in it also the strength of every apple tree whose gnarled branches have borne the hard round fruit through the turning of the season.
I brought Joseph home for the first time in the afternoon. I struggled to keep up with the nurse as she led me out the winding passageways of the hospital (a new mother couldn’t be expected to find her way out on her own). That night I lay with him on the mattress on the floor in my bedroom, his head on my chest and my face bent to his, smelling his yet-unwashed hair. In the stillness of that moment holiness washed over us as a tide claims the shore.
I took a photograph of us, and later people would tell me: You look like the Madonna and child. And we are, each of us, at least as monumental, at least as sacred. Motherhood ties us irrevocably to the ground: having participated in bearing life we become the kind of love that keeps us tethered to the work of survival and that is as sublime as Creation itself. We are forever to be both the holy icon and the aching mundane. Sitting on a footstool by the child’s bed not knowing what hurts, rising in the morning to serve oatmeal in a blue bowl, kneeling by the river.