When he was brand new and still fell asleep to the sound of my heartbeat, he had this quilt. It was red and black and green. It had cows on it. It had been hand stitched by a librarian from Texas. He lost his umbilical cord stump on it. It bunched up under his dimpled knees while he learned to crawl. He peed on it and cried into it. Threw up strained bananas on it. I laundered it daily with Dreft in a stainless steel sink. He spilled chocolate milk on it and dragged it through the mud. The way little boys do. He laid on top of it when he had mono. He left fever sweat across a cows face. He kept a corner of it pressed against his cheek while he watched “Toy Story” and listened to his father slam me into a kitchen wall. I rescued it from the dogs mouth. I wrapped his sturdy little body in it when he ran through the house in nothing but his Scooby Doo underwear. I tucked it around his restless toddler feet at 1 am.
He loved that quilt into pieces while the world around him exploded with noise and cracked plaster. I packed the pieces away carefully just after his 5th birthday. They still smelled slightly like his hair and my Charlie perfume. He was our final baby. My last belief in something good. Conceived in a Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom, during a “cops” rerun. Summer rain hitting the windowsill. The dude next door whistling for his rottweiler. Chicken thawing on a kitchen counter. Sometime right before his 7th birthday, he found the pieces of that quilt in the bottom of a drawer. He was having nightmares with only his 14 year old sister to come in the middle of the night to comfort him. She poured his cereal. She washed his clothes. She did everything she could do. Everything in her tiny teenage power, while she sneaked smokes out a laundry room window before school. He loved her desperately. Clung to her like heated saran wrap. She didn’t smell like me. Sound like me. She wasn’t his version of a mother. She was what was left. Till he pulled remnants of a mother out of that drawer. Smelling his infant self. My perfume. Our moments together. Story and bath time. Chocolate and canned green beans. His tears and my warm skin. All of it woven into those worn pieces of cloth. He pulled those pieces out of the drawer. Began carrying them around with him. Falling asleep with them. While 40 minutes away I woke up screaming his name. My arms and heart useless entities. Broken, empty, ugly things. He carried the pieces around until they wore away to strings. He carried his dream of a mother until his father came across them. Screaming hot spittle and rage into his face. Calling him a faggot. Breaking his final belief in something good.
I signed him away with shaking cold hands and a leaky blue pen. The legal aid lawyer with the big boobs and popping buttons tried to talk me out of it. “You can have him”, She kept saying, like he was a trinket, a toy. “I don’t want him,” I replied in my court dress and tight pantyhose. “Not if getting him means destroying him.”
I took my frozen-self back out into a different world. The one where I wasn’t a Mom on a daily basis. Living in those early days didn’t mean feeling the sun on my face, or laughing in the shower. It meant combing my hair and eating food I didn’t want. Standing in line at Wal-Mart and smiling at someone else’s child. Walking to work when all I wanted to do was lay in the dark. With five comforters piled on me. Sweating and screaming. The kind of screaming that rips the throat and rattles the teeth. I wanted an oblivion. A blank space I could fill with the smells and sounds and feel of my children. A place where I could be their mother. A place where they never had to see my bruises. They say grief’s color is blue. This grief wasn’t blue. Blue is calm. This grief was a bright red. Loud and in my face. It was an endless thing with jagged edges. Blood and glass. Coating my soul like cotton candy.
I’m a good mother. I’m a good person. I didn’t deserve this. They didn’t deserve this. I didn’t cause this. The counselor told me to repeat it until I believed it. She said I could even say it in my head. But I said it out loud. I said it until my tongue was numb with it. Until the words didn’t feel like hostile strangers on a Boston subway. Until I could smile at other people’s children and mean it. I repeated the words when I woke up at 4:01 am with my nightgown twisted and stuck to my back with sweat. When I had to turn on every light in the house to chase away the jagged edges of grief. It takes a lot of work to undo a lie you’ve been sold marinated in cruelty. A lot of patience to love yourself, when you’re all you have left.
They found him this morning. Curled up in his leather jacket. On the cold ground. Beside the swimming pool in the back yard. Next to a pile of brown melting snow. A scowl on his beautiful face. An eight dollar bottle of whiskey clutched to his chest. Next to his scars. Where a surgeon cut into him. Breaking his ribs to insert a metal rod. Trying to protect his heart. The one that had already been broken.
They found him this morning. In a pretty suburban backyard. Three hundred feet from where his father and I began. On a suburban dead end street. Where the bay windows shine and the white curtains from Macy’s hide the unsavory stains. Where the horrible and unspeakable things are things that happen to someone else’s family.
They found him this morning. My little boy. My baby. My final belief in something good. In the fetal position with that damn whiskey. Vomit in the thick hair he inherited from me. Still drunk at 9:46 am on Easter morning.
He was slapped into consciousness over a plateful of stale cinnamon rolls. His father poured the last of the whiskey down a bathroom drain and felt like a hero.
He’s going to be 21 on Saturday. Old enough to legally drink himself to death. To ruin his beautiful body and puke away his potential with a little help from Jack Daniel’s.
One older brother dying a slow, dirty death, from pancreatitis. The other believing he can fly. He can be something better. Something prettier, with the help of a little ecstasy and a 21 year old hooker he meets at a Comfort Inn. A sister with a baby of her own and an unemployed husband old enough to be the father she still craves. A mother who still wakes up screaming his name, all their names, on the bad nights. All of us as broken, as worn, as those pieces of my youngest sons quilt. His remnants of a mother.
Janine Canty is a self proclaimed word geek. She has been writing on and off for 39 years. Her work has previously appeared at Sweatpants and Coffee as well as The Manifest Station. She is a semi regular contributor to The Weeklings. She lives in Northern Maine, where she unmasks the world, one essay at a time. She can be found on Facebook. She attended Jen Pastiloff & Emily Rapp’s writing/yoga retreat in Vermont.