By Billie Hinton
I’m being held in the arms of someone while my mother and father board a plane. We’re on the tarmac and they walk away and up the steep steel stairway into what appears to be a black hole. I push away from the chest I’m held up against, straining to follow the two people I know best in this world. The stairs roll away and the black hole closes and the plane moves away, slow and then fast. The black hole opens up inside of me; everything I know slips into the distance with that plane. I stop pushing and cave in to the chest, allow myself to be held, hot tears soaking into fabric that does not smell like anything familiar.
In his small office my therapist sits too close for comfort, my knees and his a few inches apart. I find solace in the large window that looks out to trees and flowering shrubs. The wash of light through blinds is an escape hatch. He asks for my earliest memory. I tell about watching my parents leave in an airplane. He asks if I felt comfort with the person I was left with and I tell him I don’t know who that person was. It seems unfathomable that my parents left me with a stranger. How did you calm yourself? he asks and I tell him, I didn’t. I still don’t.
In the office of my therapist, I write the final check for the final therapy session. His office feels larger now. The check number is 2001 and he comments that it has been an odyssey. I am moving to Texas to attend graduate school in clinical social work, inconsolable at saying goodbye to a man who has sat across from me several times each week for several years, knees inches away, wearing Birkenstocks which at one point I mocked, but have come now to love. After I leave I meet friends for lunch, still bereft at the loss of my thrice-weekly sessions, tears sliding down my cheeks at random between bites of food. One gives me his wristwatch to wear while we sit in the sun with take-out containers and iced tea in plastic cups. Comfort.
A political imbroglio explodes in my graduate program. Torn about whether to stay or go, thoughts of transferring mid-year, moving, all the details whirl around me as I sit on the little green sofa in the garage apartment I rent and love. Bedtime in soft light of the loft, a dream of my therapist. In the dream, seeking comfort, I go to his house and search for him. Every room is empty; he has moved away. I am distraught, heartbroken, and then a car pulls up and he gets out and tells me that the therapy is inside of me. I have it all inside of me. I wake up and stretch, long and slow like a cat, a sunbeam arrowing across the corner of the bed.
My dad flies to Austin to help me move to Los Gatos, California for my clinical internship. He takes a taxi from the airport to my garage apartment in Hyde Park. My car is packed full and hitched up to a U-Haul trailer that he helps me fill with furniture. We drive from Austin to Los Gatos with my two cats and everything I own in the world. We run out of gas in the middle of an empty highway in west Texas because I forgot to fill the tank. He tells me stories I have never heard before about his time in the Army in Korea. The cats poop in the litter box in the back seat and I won’t let him open the window because they might get out and I might never be able to leave this dark desolate landscape if they get away and I can’t find them. When the sun comes up my dad hitches a ride for gas. We have a good day’s drive to Needles, California where we spend the night. In the morning we head north. I get annoyed when he complains as we run into a huge traffic jam in Gilroy, California. I tell him that I cannot handle his negativity. He helps me find an apartment in Los Gatos and is perfectly positive about the one I like best. I don’t know if he cries when I drop him off at the airport. I watch the planes take off as I drive away.
I finish my internship and accept a full-time professional position with the same agency. After six months an apartment opens up above the apartment of my best friend in Hollywood. There is a charming courtyard with trees and flowers. I resign the job and pack all my belongings, leaving the things that won’t fit in the U-Haul behind. The cats and I drive north to south along the coastal highway. It is treacherous in spots but the Pacific Ocean is a comfort, as is my ability to move myself to a new home. It’s dark by the time I get to LA and there are a few minutes when I feel I have made a huge mistake. My friend has flowers and fruits and a pallet on the floor in my new apartment. We drink glasses of wine and the cats and I curl up and fall asleep. Home.
I’m lying on a table in the obstetrician’s office holding a newspaper up to screen my vision, getting an amnio because I’m 33 years old and pregnant with my firstborn. The FMP test has come back high, which could mean nothing, or it could mean he has Downs Syndrome. The amnio is to see which it is. I have a needle phobia and the amnio needle is something I do not want to lay eyes on, thus the newspaper. The doctor is kind and gentle, assuring me it will be over quickly. I am holding my own until I see my husband’s eyes, which grow large as he spots the needle. We didn’t think we would need to screen my husband’s eyes. He later shows me with his hands how long the needle was. The doctor provides a running commentary as I requested and we are almost done when she stops talking. What is it? I ask. What’s wrong? She pauses. What is wrong? Nothing’s wrong, she says. What? WHAT? My heart races. Your baby is holding on to the amnio needle, she says. He’ll turn loose in a minute. He holds on for fifteen. This turns out to be predictive of his personality.
My first child is born, one month early, but fully developed at a whopping 8+ pounds. My whole world changes. Everything I ever studied about child development is illustrated before my eyes. Accelerated. I can barely keep up with him. Once he experiences the sensation of being upright in the world he refuses to lie down again. I change his diapers while he stands gripping the edge of the sofa, barely willing to hold still long enough for the clean diaper to be put on.
My son is a year old. He started walking at age 9 months and looks like an infant on two legs more than a toddler. He is still wearing onesies, the little long-sleeved ones that snap up the front and have a long crotch-piece that wraps up over the diaper and attaches, tidy and easy. We were given a large plastic bin of baby clothes and the onesie he wears most is a well-washed, very soft cotton, pale blue with red ribbing and tiny airplanes all over it. When it’s clean and in the drawer of the green painted wooden dresser we found at the thrift shop to hold his tiny clothes, it’s the onesie I always choose. Last spring it was too large for him; now it fits perfectly, taut around his diaper as he marches down the long hallway, huge toothless grin on his little face, to climb on the red and green and blue wooden ride-on airplane his grandparents gave him for his first Christmas.
He is five years old, joined now by a younger sister, age three. We are homeschooling, not for religious reasons but to accommodate the brilliance of my children. We look at the stars through our telescope, study everything we can find under the microscope, lie on the ground and watch ants at work, dig endless canals in the huge sand pit in the back yard, flooding them with the hose even in the cold of winter. We do word of the day in Latin, French, Spanish, and Chinese. Every morning I get up early to write the words on the chalkboard in our kitchen. He and his sister run to the kitchen when they wake, eager to see what that day’s word might be. In the spring, he knows I am waiting for word from an agent, watches me walk to the mail box each day, returning empty handed but for the junk mail. One morning I decline to check the mail box but he says I have to. When I get there he has filled it up with a flurry of envelopes, each addressed to “Mom” and sealed tight. Inside each one he has put a note with hearts and flowers and “I love you” written and signed with his name.
We board the plane, husband, 8-year old son, 6-year old daughter, all of us bound on a family vacation to the southwest. I have packed activities and toys, books and snacks. It is close to the one-year anniversary of 9/11 and tension is thick in the airport and on the plane. We fly safely to Albuquerque and get our bags full of tents and sleeping bags, camping gear and clothing, our rental car. The first night we set up camp I hear coyotes and imagine a horde of banshees circling the tent. There are footsteps outside; I fret over child abductors with knives slitting the tent to take my children away. They sleep inches from me in their own bags, but even so, I am awake all night, on guard, mother bear. In the morning we see the footsteps were mule deer, still surrounding our tent, close enough to touch. We peek at them, marvel at the doe and her twin fawns. I am safe. We are all safe. In the Holiday Inn Express a week later my husband introduces our children to Star Trek on TV. I’m not a huge fan of Star Trek. Space ships, Data, Pickard and Riker.
My daughter and I help pack the car with all the things a son takes to his first year of college. He is double-majoring in physics and mathematics. We move him into the dorm room, meet his roommate. I make his bed, wanting to know that at the end of this momentous day he has a comfortable place to sleep. I worry about things like toilet tissue. Does he have enough. Should I have brought more towels. When it’s time to leave I fall apart. Of course there are tears. He hugs me and smiles, ready to be on his own. My daughter suggests we walk down the stairs instead of taking the elevator since I cannot stop crying.
I’m working on a novel that takes a startling turn toward time travel, parallel universes. Many worlds theory. I need assistance. My son messages in response to my questions: Star Trek: TNG: Season 7: Episode 11.
We pack a truck-load of furniture to be delivered to my son’s first apartment. I have been excited all week, shopping thrift stores for dishware, cookware, a blender, good knives, and then this morning watching husband take the bed apart to load it, I burst into tears. The dresser we send is the same dresser that his first baby clothes went into when he was born. It seems like time travel of some kind that 20 years ago I stood in front of that dresser and folded tiny onesies with airplanes and other things and today it is on a truck going to a 20-year old’s apartment. Surely this is a Star Trek episode and I have stepped into an alternate universe where I see the future but really, the dresser is still in that sunny bedroom on Woodland Drive and still full of onesies.
I find a bin full of old saved clothing in my closet and look through it for the airplane onesie. It isn’t there. I find it unfathomable that I gave that onesie away.
My son and I fly to San Francisco, a week early for his summer undergraduate physics research gig at UCLA, so he can visit graduate programs. I do not need to pack anything for him but I do anyway. A leather luggage tag that says Not all who wander are lost. Special field-note pads. A box of business cards I designed and ordered for him. Snacks.
We get to the airport way too early. Going through security isn’t as bad as we expect. We take off our shoes, ditch our water bottles in trash cans, and stand in a machine that scans for weapons. No one really blinks an eye at this anymore. I feel a mild panic but then remind myself. He is 21 years old. He survived childhood. He is as safe as anyone can be in this world.
We start at Berkeley and move down the coast. Stanford, UC-Santa Cruz, UC-Santa Barbara. Caltech, UCLA.
He provides a custom mix of his favorite music as the soundtrack to our journey. He gets annoyed with me a few times but I don’t think it’s because of my negativity. He takes in the Pacific Ocean as we drive down the coastal highway. It looks bigger now than it did when I drove this route before.
We stay in Pasadena several nights and meet up with an old and dear friend, the one I lived above in Hollywood during the magical post-graduate year. We meet her husband and twin sons. I could be in the holodeck on Star Trek, all these threads from the past weaving together into one new thing.
We drive down Santa Monica Boulevard the day I leave him, en route to UCLA. My mind spins with memories of the year I lived in Hollywood, he puts on a song he says is perfect. I expect Sheryl Crow but he puts on something I’ve never heard; it is sad and tears form but I manage to squeeze them back where they came from. I manage not to cry, even when I hug him goodbye in a courtyard on the sprawling campus and walk back to the rental car alone.
The next morning I drive to the airport in Burbank. I take surface roads with Google Maps, watch the sun rise ahead of me as the moon sets in my rearview mirror. I drive through neighborhoods and industrial areas and come into the Burbank airport through what feels like a secret entrance, turn in the rental car, board the plane through a door onto the tarmac and up a steel ramp into the black hole of the plane. I am 56 and I have left my son, 21, at UCLA where he will work on a team researching beam physics. He is excited and perfectly fine. It is me who cries.
He graduates valedictorian, double major in math and physics. When we get to the reception in the physics and math building he hands me his diploma and silver platter, his award for being first in scholarship, and darts off to visit the other receptions while his physics professors surround me, praising him, praising me, eliciting stories of his childhood. He is going to Cornell, the doctoral program in theoretical astronomy, where his physics professor mentor went with Carl Sagan. At the end of the reception his mentor tells him when he graduates Cornell he will give him his old Cornell robe to wear. He takes off his undergraduate cap and gown, the green and white valedictorian stole, and puts it on me, one piece at a time. “You be the physics and math graduate,” he says. I wear it back to his apartment, the one where the little dresser is, where the onesies used to live. He is the rising star. I do not cry.
Billie Hinton is a writer and psychotherapist who lives with her family (husband, teenager, horses, donkeys, cats, and Corgis) on a small horse farm in North Carolina. She reviews literary fiction for LitChat, teaches writing via small group workshops, and offers Jungian-based sandplay therapy to clients and artists of all kinds. Recent work appears in Literary Mama, Not One Of Us, and Riverfeet Anthology.