By Eileen Vorbach Collins
When my son was three years old, he told me a story. He described being in utero. Swimming, his hair floating in the waves. The whooshing sound like a heartbeat, like his drum. A feeling like when the cat makes bread on his chest and purrs. He said there was a bright light and a man wearing a mask and he was very cold. I wrote the whole story down, as close to verbatim as I could, in his baby book.
A year later, as we sat looking through the book, I asked him about it. A vacant stare, the memory gone wherever memories go when they are lost to us forever. Now he wanted me to tell the story. My own version was different. But still, there was the feeling of the cat kneading bread on my chest. Soft and warm. Persistent and familiar. Filled with delicious promise.
Now my son lives on a sailboat, in a marina I have never visited, somewhere in the San Francisco Bay. Google maps tells me that’s just about 3,000 miles away from my home in Florida. In a picture on Facebook, his head is poking out of the cabin. The picture is posted by a woman I’ve never met. It makes me happy to see him smiling.
I wonder how this could have happened so quickly, that he’s all grown up with a life and a sailboat of his own, 3,000 miles away from me. It feels like not so long ago that I was working twelve-hour days and thinking I’d never make it. Halfway through those days, the visceral need to see him, hug him, to smell his sweaty, earthy little boy self, gnawed at my gut like a Yom Kippur fast.
When my son was about six years old, his stepmother had a home fax machine, something not too common at the time. He learned to use it and would sneak into her office while she was busy napping and send a drawing to my office fax. Once it was a characterization of the Evil Stepmonster. I know I should have admonished him—encouraged him to take the proverbial high road— but it was actually a damn good likeness.
One reason children become difficult teenagers is to help us separate. If they simply became larger versions of the sweet darlings that were delighted by our arrival home, sat on our laps and adored us, snuggled up for story time, and amazed us daily with their sheer wonderfulness, we would fall apart when the time came for them to venture forth on their own.
Perhaps it’s because my son was never a terrible two, never really rebellious to the point of yelling or slamming doors, that I haven’t fully come to terms with his otherness.
Why couldn’t he have just thrown himself on the floor at the grocery store, kicking his little feet, making his light-up superhero shoes flash like lightning, and screaming until he was blue because I wouldn’t buy Pop Tarts? Why couldn’t his fourteen-year-old self have swiped money from my purse to buy beer and a couple of joints? A six pack of multicolored Trojans to have just in case (I’d have given him the cash)? Maybe then I’d have looked forward to his growing up and moving away.
When he went to summer camp, I worried every night and couldn’t wait for it to be over—to have him safe at home again. By the time he left for college, I knew it was for the best. I slept soundly, not staying awake to hear his key in the door. I focused on a fantasy of him studying in his dorm room even though, more likely, he was out drinking with his friends.
I am not biding my time watching the Hallmark channel while catching up on the ironing. My life is busy, and full, and at least to me, quite interesting. Yet I still haven’t gotten used to not having my children around.
Yes, my son lives far away, and I don’t get to see him often enough. When I do, I cherish our time together. And he tries to do that role-reversal thing, giving me advice. I shouldn’t use a gift card for Lyft because the balance might be low and I’ll be stranded. I should drink oat milk in my coffee. That’s not happening. Not until I find light up shoes in my size. Maybe not even then.
Twenty-five years after writing in his baby book, a cat purring on my lap, I open the book and read the entry where he told me about his birth. Next to it, in the margin, I write, Perfectly baked.
Then I book a flight to San Francisco.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her essays have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction, The Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Follow her on Twitter.
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