“I think it’s a really bad idea that you’re going to be gone for the whole entire Mother’s Day, Dad,” our twelve-year-old Little Monkey said to the Man I Married.
MIM responded, “Your mother and I give each other a lot of freedom to follow our dreams.”
He continued, “Your mom had to be gone all day yesterday to follow her dream, so she doesn’t mind that I’m gone all day on Mother’s Day to follow mine.”
Much as MIM’s masterful at pulling split-second malarkey out of his derriere, he also spoke the truth. It would be splitting hairs to point out that I’ve spent twenty years chasing one dream, while he’s spent our marriage chasing twenty, and I thought fatherhood was going to end his following the next shiny fantasy twinkling over the next green hill. But adoption papers don’t come with a “required personality change” clause, so I’m not sure why either one of us thought that would be true.
Most recently, he’s spending long Saturdays at a project internship learning how to make booze, which I agree is best mastered out of the house rather than in our garage, so I fully support his decision to mess up somebody else’s kitchen and bathroom.
But MIM needed to watch the Little Monkey on the day before Mother’s Day, while I took the stage as part of Seattle’s first Listen to Your Mother production, where thirteen women read their short essays centered on motherhood. So MIM switched his regular Saturday moonshine-making date to Sunday: Mother’s Day. I didn’t mind. But LM did. And the truth is that Mother’s Day in our house is for LM and not for me. Mother’s Day is about the Little Monkey having a Mother.
Mother’s Day brings up a lot of funked-up silt from this child’s brain. Every year before Mother’s Day, I look at one past Mother’s Day card he made me, which sums up what his brain and the day will be like. I gird my loins for the transformation: from a mostly sweet boy with a typical teen’s snark mouth and zero-to-sixty emotional tempests, to a whirling dervish armed with barbed wire and habanero.
I wasn’t sure that on the parent-equity scale, my managing a single-handed Mother’s Day was on par with MIM taking our son property hunting in Concrete, Washington, that Saturday, where MIM fed LM something called a Big Ass Burger (served on a glazed doughnut bun); convinced him that Jackalopes were real; and let him loose in a forest, where he got lost, which meant LM was out of MIM’s hair for a while and didn’t worry him (granted, LM’s version of “getting lost” translates roughly to, “If I yell in a forest and nobody can hear me, then I surely do not exist and must return to civilization to meet my existential needs”). LM keeps telling me about his Big Ass Burger, since it means he legitimately gets to swear, although his Dad warned him to tell Mom about it only once.
I’m not sure such a day of single-parenting compares with deserting the Mother Ship on the most difficult annual day of the year. Perhaps this is why MIM gave me a bottle of chocolate vodka along with a fruit torte for Mother’s Day breakfast before he left for ten hours. He had called me from the bakery counter, where he stood with LM, unable to figure out what I would like. “I was thinking about this cake—”
“I don’t like cake,” I interrupted him. He’s known me since Reagan was in office but doesn’t know I don’t like cake? He can’t pick out a pastry for his wife of over a quarter-decade? How many marriages have cell phones saved, I often wonder? Imagine what our partners might otherwise return home with?
“I know you don’t like cake, but…” His reasoning at that point—to buy me a cake when he knows I don’t like cake—was beyond me, so I promptly forgot it. The man was trying, and I suffer from the same glaze-eyed indecision when I try to pick something out for him in the beer aisle (which is much bigger than the pastry case, just saying). He was standing at a bakery counter at eight a.m. on a Sunday with an unmedicated Little Monkey, who had already started sliding down the Mother’s Day Freakout Slope, so who was I to get picky? This wasn’t about me. “I like fruit, I like custard, I like pie,” I rattled off, then, “Just have the Little Monkey pick something.”
“You want the Little Monkey to pick it?” he repeated, as if I’d just said I’d gotten a Brazilian Wax on the way to a fundraising rally for Sarah Palin.
“He’ll know what I like. Tell him I said that, and have him pick it,” I instructed.
It didn’t matter what got picked: what mattered was LM hearing those words and being given the power to pick. No matter what treat they returned with, I would wax poetic about how much I loved it. But in truth, LM has a good sense for such things, and I might not have to fabricate any effusion. I’m still not sure how much of his sensitivity is his lingering PTSD and how much is his inborn talent and personality. He remains hyperaware about many things: recently he did some yardwork for a close friend, and he repeated to me what he had heard her and her daughter say. My friend was shocked to learn he could hear them behind a closed window a yard’s width away and wondered how I live with that level of scrutiny yet retain my sanity. I consider it a mark of victory that he no longer notices when I get a slight hair trim or a new pair of jeans; any future partner of his will not know to thank me for any “typical male obtuseness” as he relaxes his vigilance.
And return with a marvelous pastry they did. The door slammed open downstairs, and a few Clydesdales galloped down the hall, followed by MIM calling after him, “Take your pill!” which is translation for, “I have suffered for the last half hour, and it’s Ritalin for him or a one-way ticket to an atoll—any atoll will do—for me.”
“I saw it as soon as soon as you said ‘fruit’ and ‘custard,’ so I nudged him toward it when I told him you’d said you wanted him to pick something out for you,” MIM said, setting down a beautiful torte, layered with strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries.
Our Great Dane child pounded up the stairs, shouting, “I picked it out just for you, Mom!”
“I knew you’d know what I like,” I said. “It’s perfect.” And it was. I carved it into four big slices and we sat at the table to eat.
“Mom, we were number 67 from the ticket machine!”
“Ah, but how many people were actually there ahead of you? What number did they call when you first got there?”
He knew I was setting up a subtraction problem, so he went for the non sequitur: “There were doughnuts, just like the one I had on my Big Ass Burger yesterday!”
He continued to shout, squirm, drum, levitate his chair and thump it back down, and tap dance. This was just the windup, I could tell.
I said, “You know in the past, it’s been hard for you to make good choices on Mother’s Day.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
“Because there’s pastries?”
“True, but try again.”
“Because there’s dessert?”
“How about this: Have I always been your mother?”
“Oh.” He got his I get it look, so rare during our math sessions. “Yeah, but I don’t remember any other Mother’s Days except with you.”
“They’re in your brain, though. It’s called your subconscious. It makes you feel all sorts of ways that you might not understand. So I’m just asking you today, now that you’re older, to try to be aware of that, so that we can try to have a nice day, especially since Dad will be gone. If you start to feel all emotional, just ask to take a break, okay? You could take an extra bath, or read, or sit with the kitten.”
“Okay.” He asked about my Listen to Your Mother performance the day before. He knew I was reading a short essay about him, and he knew what it was about.** We had discussed it thoroughly. But he asked again.
“It was about when you switched from calling us by our first names to calling us Mom and Dad. And about some of the things you used to call us.”
“Did you use bad words?”
“I did. It’s what you used to say.” MIM and I then each repeated some of the more colorful things he’d called us, which we’d never done before. “It’s what you heard people call each other. You especially heard men call women terrible things. You didn’t even know what those things meant. You were just repeating what other people said when they were angry. You saw fathers treating mothers badly. I think it’s part of why you have a hard time on Mother’s Day, even if you don’t remember. It’s probably really confusing inside, and it’s okay to feel confused. Just try to think about your feelings and your choices, before you start making really bad decisions today, okay?”
“You used bad words! I’m so embarrassed!”
“You were disappointed that I wasn’t going to use your real name for the performance, remember? You asked me to use your actual name. Good thing I didn’t, huh? And if you’re so embarrassed about the bad language, how about that’s the last we hear about yesterday’s burger?”
His shoulder slumped. “Ooo-kaaaay.” His voice slid down an octave.
I picked up the phone. “I have something I’ve saved all these years, from when you used to call us by our first names. Do you want to hear it?”
I might be stirring up a fecal storm, but the timing felt right, and I’d tested the waters by mentioning it the night before. I pulled up our saved voice mails and finally got to the message I’d saved for over six years: LM’s first message to us, just a week or so after we’d met him. An impossibly sweet and young child’s voice greeted us over the speakerphone:
Hi, Pat*. Hi, Gumbo. Hi, Jen and Max. Hi, Pat! I’m trying to see…. Hi, Pat!! I’m playing with my toys right now and I’m going to bring some Legos so we can play, and maybe we can play the guitar in the garage. Bye. Love you, Jen and Gumbo and Pat.
“That’s me?” LM wore his goofy I’m pretending to be mortified but I am secretly thrilled expression. “I sounded like that?”
“That’s you. It was just before your sixth birthday. Do you want to hear it again?”
The message underscored other things besides how odd it was to hear our son greet us by our first names, especially knowing the filthy things he’d start to call us not long after. Mostly, the message was a reminder that from the minute we’d met, he was really, really into MIM. He craved a Dad. He’d told his foster mother after our first meeting that “Pat was cool.” I ranked after the dog in the initial greeting (but before the cat), and I’d never had a problem with that. Mothers cycled through the revolving door of his life. As far as he knew, I’d be gone with the door’s next revolution; only time would prove that I was the only one coming through that door from then on.
I was the fourth significant mother he’d been told to honor on Mother’s Day. I didn’t know much about the other eight mothers, but at least one of the other short-term moms had had him for a Mother’s Day, too. No wonder he had scrambled eggs for brains on Mother’s Day.
Last year we hit some milestones: he’d spent exactly half of his Mother’s Days and birthdays with us. Which meant this year we’d finally tipped instead of simply evening the scale: today would mean he’d now spent more than half of his Mother’s Days with his Forever Mom. Me. Surely that milestone of consistency alone would be its own fire extinguisher—and he was now old enough that we could talk about it instead of his suffering from mysterious radioactive fallout bursting through his pores, which he hadn’t had the tools or logical brain to comprehend before. He was taller than I, now. Which meant he could reach for things for me at the grocery store as well as access some frontal lobes of his own.
“Want to hear it again?” I asked.
It also bothered me that he’d told us he loved us when he’d met us only a couple of times. That little boy flung his love around desperately, wanting to be loved, not understanding that others needed to earn his love and it wasn’t to be given away so lightly: he was worth more than that. He used that word as casually as he’d used the words “fuckin’ bitch.” Both, to me, were the same side of the same coin.
“Again?” I’d play it all day long if he wanted, and we could discuss it as much as he needed.
“Who’s the last piece of pastry for?” he asked, looking longingly over at the fourth slice on the counter.
“It’s Mother’s Day,” MIM answered. “Who do you think it’s for?”
“For Mom?” He looked appealingly over at me, hoping I’d concede and let him have it. But I did not, because I believe it’s important for him to learn to be a giver, especially to women, when he still struggles to accord the same respect to women that he does to men, when his inner compass still sometimes tell him that they are worth less than men, because it’s what he was taught.
So I set a good example and said, “Thank you.”
Also? I knew today I’d earn that mother fuckin’ piece of pastry, and it would go well with a bigass chocolate vodka chaser later. I’m no teetotaler when it comes to torte.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
**My Listen to Your Mother essay was abbreviated and adapted from a longer essay that ran in the print version of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers; it is now available on their online website, as well as on my blog (with an introduction).
Photo Credits: MIM and barrels: Old Ballard Liquor Co.
All other photos: Yours Truly