By Katrina Willis
We had borrowed a baby, and now the baby was gone.
“Where did you last see her?” I asked my friend.
“I don’t remember,” she said. “But look… there are turkey sandwiches for lunch.”
“We can’t eat turkey sandwiches when the baby is missing,” I said.
“I’ll be quick,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”
While she ate her turkey sandwich, I rushed frantically from baby to baby—there were so many in the stress center waiting room—looking for the one we were responsible for. But the babies all had the same faces, and I could no longer remember what our borrowed baby looked like.
The car seats on the floor—there were so many—were all empty.
People wandered around, drugged and dazed, in stress center scrubs. The scrubs had no ties. Ties were too dangerous to those who wished themselves or others harm.
We didn’t find the baby before I woke. She remained missing.
It was just a dream, of course. But it wasn’t.
The baby was missing.
My 19-year-old daughter had texted me the day before: I only ever wanted my fucking mom. But she died when you came out. I don’t even recognize you anymore. I doubt I’ll ever get her back.
The word was a dagger.
I was dead to her.
I’d spoken with her brothers earlier in the week. First the baby (17), then the oldest (23). The middle (20) chose to remain his usual silent self.
The two who talked told me they wanted more one-on-one time with me. I assured them I could do that. They listed all the things they thought I’d done wrong when I came out as gay, when their father and I divorced after twenty-three years.
I let them air their grievances. I listened. I nodded. I acknowledged their pain. Divorce is hard on everyone.
“What can I do moving forward?” I asked. “What matters most to each of you?”
“Time alone with you,” they agreed. And they said I should talk to their sister. She was the angriest of all. They told me to prepare myself for her storm.
There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for a child negating your existence.
When she was a baby, she never cried. She watched the world with bright, blue, inquisitive eyes. She laughed at her older brothers and sucked two fingers on her right hand. Her pink blankie went with her everywhere. When I had to wash it, she stood in front of the washing machine with her pudgy, starfish fingers pressed against the window. She cried as the pink spun round and round, “My blankie. My blankie!”
Before speech therapy she could not properly say her “r’s.” And she had so many ear infections when she was little, she could not hear the mispronunciation. Her father and I used to laugh at her adorable impediment. Hands on hips, she would confront our laughter with disdain. “I not talka you, Mama!” she’d say. I would fold her up my arms, hug her into my chest.
“I love you, Mary Mack,” I would assure her. “You’re my sweet, precious, smart girl.”
She was kind and gentle with animals. She loved them all, from hamsters to fish to puppies.
She and I made bags for the homeless because she was so distressed by the thought of someone sleeping on the street without an Oreo. We filled the bags with bottled water, toothbrushes, deodorant, and snacks. She and her little brother decorated the brown, paper outsides with sentiments like, “Hope you find a home soon!” We passed them out at stoplights and intersections.
The initial call went well. She was 2,200 miles away at college, walking on the beach.
“It’s going to rain here soon,” she said. “I might not be able to talk long.”
I asked her what she needed from me. She told me I was different.
“How so?” I asked.
She couldn’t articulate.
I wondered: Does she think I’m different because she’s only ever known me as a wife and mother? Is it hard for her to imagine me as a human, an independent woman who has her own doubts and fears and dreams? Is that why I felt different to her?
But she couldn’t really say.
I assured her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that I hadn’t changed even though our family dynamic had. I was still her mother, I would always be her mother.
Then the rain came, and she was gone.
When my four kids were little, I read to them every night before bed. In our white-picket-fence-suburban-home, there was an upstairs hallway that connected all their bedrooms. At one end, was a sitting area with a rocking chair and a bookcase.
We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and when the mountain lion attack came, I choked back my sadness, breathed deeply.
“Do you want me to finish, Mom?” my oldest son asked as tears streamed down my face.
But I continued to read the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann.
My sweet, sensitive daughter burst into tears and ran into her room, crying, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too sad!”
It was Little Ann dying of grief over the loss of her beloved companion that shook me the hardest.
I didn’t fully understand that kind of grief until 16 years later when my blue-eyed beauty—who no longer had a speech impediment—erased me.
“She thinks she should have never been born because I’m gay,” I tried to explain to my own aging mother as I sat with her in the nursing home and cried.
Of course, I ran to my Mom. My rock. I needed her then like I’d never needed her before.
“She says she shouldn’t be alive, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the fact that she is. She said I lied to everyone my whole life, but I didn’t, Mom. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could create a life with a woman. Her dad and I had 23 mostly good years together, but he wasn’t perfect, either. If she knew all the details about him, she might feel differently. But those aren’t my stories to tell. They’re his.”
“Oh, Trinks,” my mom said, “I can’t believe this is happening. You’ve been such a good mother to those kids their whole lives. Why is she being so selfish now?”
“She’s hurting, Mom. And I understand that. But she blames me for everything. She says her dad didn’t leave, I did. But I never left my kids, Mom. I would never leave them. I left the marriage. Their dad did, too. It was a mutual decision. But that’s not how she sees it.”
“She will someday,” Mom assured me. “She’s angry and young and selfish, but she’ll come around.”
“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.
What if she doesn’t?
I’ve thought mostly about pills or a closed garage. The other options seem too brutal, too violent. I don’t have access to a gun, and I’m afraid of heights. That makes a jump pretty implausible.
I’ve Googled the effects of suicide on the children left behind, and it’s not pretty.
But neither are the effects of coming out as gay and divorcing, either.
Would they be better off without me? Would they heal more quickly if I just removed myself from the picture? Would they bond more closely with their often harsh and degrading father in my absence? Would they appreciate my life insurance money more than they appreciated my presence?
Is it the one gift I can give them to atone for bringing them against their will into this painful world?
Ending a marriage that was laced with infidelity and condescension—and at the end, physical assault—seemed the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to stay in that situation. What kind of example was I setting for them if I continued to stay? To take it? To let myself dissolve into nothingness?
I thought I was teaching them to stand up for themselves, to live their own truths, to never kowtow to another.
But in their eyes, the lesson was about leaving instead of staying. It was about lying instead of living.
They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.
My cousin said to me, “I don’t take credit for any of my kids’ successes, and I don’t take the blame for any of their shortcomings, either.”
I’m trying to cling to that belief system, but my guilt is strong. It’s a super power of mine, feeling the responsibility for everyone else’s well-being.
Some call that co-dependence.
I cry most every night thinking about my kids’ pain. All I’ve ever wanted is their happiness, but I cannot create it for them. Only they can make that choice. Each of them, individually.
I have loved and supported and championed them. They have had nice homes and good food and basements full of toys and fun vacations and strong educations. They have been held, nurtured, encouraged, and cheered. They have been disciplined and taught manners and have been held accountable for their actions.
They have been beloved.
They are beloved.
And they are themselves now, no longer mine.
When my head is on my pillow, I can still smell the sweaty, sweet scent of their baby hair; can feel the weight of their baby bodies in my arms in the middle of the night, feeding them, keeping them safe and warm, their baby bellies distended and full.
But when I wake, my pillow is just a pillow, smelling mostly of Downy dryer sheets.
And the baby is missing.
Katrina Anne Willis is the author of Parting Gifts (She Writes Press, April 2016). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, and Nothing but the Truth So Help Me God. She was recognized as one of six distinguished authors at the 2016 Indianapolis Book & Author luncheon, was named a BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us & Voice of the Year; was awarded the 2014 Parenting Media Associations Gold Medal Blogger Award, participated in the 2013; Listen to Your Mother&; show, and was a 2011 Midwest Writers Fellow.
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