Ache. My son is, to me, the most fragile and tender boy I know. Nothing could have prepared me for this...the child with bone-wings breaking through his skin, the tears lighting on his cheeks with the slightest provocation, the eyes on me--noticing everything--if my perfume changes, he asks me about it...if I wear different earrings, he wants to know where I got them...if I have been out in the garden, he sees the sun's handiwork on my cheekbones.
The blush of a new love--how he hangs on every word, traces the curve of your wrist with his fingertips, asks you to speak again and again. So it is for this mother--this young son. His body was nourished from mine for fifteen months. Without thinking, I gave to him and he rested in the hollow of my arms--fragrant and fierce all at once. This love, mother and son...until the day his mouth curled around a word instead when we sat in our rocking chair and I offered to nurse him.
"No," he said firmly.
I laughed and tied my hair back, "Don't you want to nurse, buddy?"
He arched his body--little more than an extension of my body in those days--away from me. Off of the chair, down onto the carpet rifling through his books, finding blocks beneath the footstool.
"No," he repeated, "No. No. No."
At naptime I offered again to be met with the same reply...after dinner, after bathtime when quietly secluded before bed.
"No," his mouth pursed--his shadows blue in the man-in-the-moon nightlight glow. "No, mama, no..."
"He's busy, that's all," M. said when I rested in our bed, "Tomorrow will be back to normal."
I ran my fingers over the blossoming vines stitched into the sheets, agreeing with him. But, we were both wrong.
The next day, boy-o persisted with his rejection of my offering...then the next, and the next, until days spiraled out to weeks and I knew--he was outgrowing me. My breasts dried out--relinquished their surprised ache. He still rocked in the chair, still snuggled against me, but my body was my own again. His was his...My son had crossed out of infancy before I even noticed.
Ache. He comes out of the drugged sleep badly. Wild--willowy arms flailing, threatening to pluck out the IV line taped against his forearm. Laughing, screaming, crying, frothing at the mouth...He looks at me and doesn't know who I am. The blank emptiness in that burst of blue--that, I carry in my bones. M. tries to restrain him, to console him, to shield him from himself.
"Bad response to Versed," the nurse notes in his chart. She has a weary smile--kind eyes. "There's nothing to be done now but to ride it out," she says.
This feels like a deeper wisdom than she knows.
"Don't leave," another nurse curtly calls from the main desk of the recovery area. "There's a note that the doctor wants to speak with you right away."
Ache. I understand this code--boy-o's stat MRI where they shot his impossibly tiny veins through with radioactive ink bullets to view his brain from the inside out--it is bad news. M. and I choke back tears as boy-o cannot hold a straw in his lips, cannot rest like the other children rest, cannot answer when we call his name. I know the taste of death--the sting of it--the heady metallic burn on my tongue. I know the pause before the verdict is read, remember the weight of "Your brother died last night," so when the nurse beckons me to the phone, whispering,
"It's the doctor,"
I walk away from my husband and son like a condemned woman. I cannot swallow--the flavor of loss choking up through me. What was I thinking, trying to raise this child or his sisters? What made me think I could bear them across the divide and live to tell about it?
"It isn't a tumor," the doctor gasps, relieved. "But, we don't know what it is...why the brain is so swollen, why he's so ill."
I am numb--M. frantically searches my face, the doctor waits for some sign of response from me, but words are gone...breath is gone. I manage to nod to M. just as boy-o tries to stand up in his hospital bed, wailing in irrational fear...a sound I long to release from my own primal depths.
Ache. I know I cannot save him. I cannot keep him safe. I drop the phone into the nurse's open hands.
"Not a tumor," I hear myself say.
But this moment re-divides my life into before and after once again. Just as I learned siblings can die without warning, reason, or logic--so can children. I taste this reality in the blood of my lip I have bitten to keep from crying out.
Then, I didn't know boy-o would heal--two spinal taps, a hospital stay, and a picc line insert into the heart later--he would again wield sticks as swords in the backyard and tell me I'd be his wife when he became a man. His agonizing headaches would pass, as would the meningitis. He would grow taller, start raining baby teeth, and ride a bike over the sidewalk pretending it was a horse and he was the noble hero. Summer marks a year since he fell onto the kitchen floor and asked to die because of his incomprehensible pain.
Every bruise, every skinned knee, every spiked fever--my body aches...a phantom limb of false security severed when my child stepped out of safety and into his own life.