By Shannon Lange
He arrived in December of 1987, 4 days before my 23rd birthday.
Tufts of downy black hair sticking up all over his perfect-shaped head, arms pin-wheeling, and fists tightly curled; prepared to fight right from the moment of his birth.
Those early moments and hours of watching his every movement and mood in wonder and fear-emotions in tandem. Flowing from one to the other with every breath we both took and knowing deep inside myself that nothing this beautiful and perfect can last forever. Keeping my face close to his, imbibing in the sweet scent of his neck and feeling tears run down my face as I whispered sweet nothings and loving promises into his tiny seashell ears, with the baby fuzz still intact on the tops of them.
He calls me one morning a few months back, on a work day. That in and of itself, startles me and immediately causes my stomach to clench and my hands to shake a bit as I grab my phone. My sons are of the generation that text primarily. They send funny memes to me as a means of checking in every few days, but often send them with no personal messages at all- the millennial version of Sunday dinner, I guess.
“Mom- I can’t breathe- something is wrong with me and I’m really fucking scared.”
“What do you mean you can’t breathe? What is going on, where are you, are you ok?”
“Mom, my chest feels tight and hurts and my fingers feel numb and tingly and I feel like I’m going crazy. I am sitting in the parking lot of a strip mall by work and I can’t work today. I can’t be alone and I have my girlfriend’s car and I need to pick her up at the airport in a few hours and I don’t know what to do!”
I tell him that I don’t have my own car on this particular day, as I have given it his younger brother to use. I ask if he wants me to call an ambulance, and I listen to his shaky uneven breathing as he tries to decision-make in the thick of whatever is occurring inside of his body and his brain.
“ I will drive to your place- I’ll be there in 20 minutes, Mom- I can’t be alone. I need you.”
I tell him that he can’t possibly drive in the state he is in, that I want him to stay on the phone with me and breathe, while I use my mother-voice to hopefully calm him down.
He hangs up on me halfway through, telling me he is on his way.
I promise myself that I will not call him back within the next 20 minutes, as I know he will be on at least 2 freeways driving towards my home in the burbs, and that if I call him, he WILL answer the call.
We are off to the Pediatrician’s office for the 4th time within a 2 month period between his 2nd and 3rd birthdays. He has turned into a daredevil and a constant whirling dervish of energy and impulsivity. He is prone to wildly jumping off furniture and picnic tables and the trunks of people’s cars and from branches of trees that should be light years away from his reach or climbing skills.
His first concussion is still 3 years in his future; his second 4 years ahead.
The pediatrician assesses him for lumps and bumps, bruises and contusions, and then suggests I keep a better eye on him and to hide anything cape-like in appearance, as these mishaps have a common denominator- the capes he ties around his neck. Capes made of tea towels primarily, which I tie or pin on autopilot for him when he brings them to me. I am distracted by his younger brother’s colicky wails during these months, and feel gratitude that he can amuse himself so well in his imaginary pleasures of being a superhero.
I cry tears of relief and shame all the way home from those visits to the pediatrician’s office with my son safely strapped into his car seat in the back of the car. He babbles non-stop in the car with me, telling me about Aladdin and Jafar, Littlefoot and Sara, Falkor and Bastion; also the old man next door that he talks to through the fence in the backyard.
The year he is 13, the car I am driving is hit by a train and the memory of the scent of him as an infant swirls around me in the wreckage. I am transported back to the promises I made him, and the whispering of sweet nothings into his perfect seashell ears. I babble to myself incoherently and remind myself to breathe as I slither my broken body out the shattered window.
The memory of his scent and the promises made spur me toward survival.
Three Christmases ago, he is with me in my home. He works with children and youth who are taken into care due to neglect or abuses too horrific to share. He tells me he is on call and will need to step out of the room to privacy if the cell phone he’s holding rings. It rings over and over that day, a constant background sound to the day’s festivities. He is absent more than he is present that day. Even when he is in the rooms with us all, he is not there. His brow is furrowed and he is deep within himself.
He leaves his plate of food mostly untouched and I watch the gravy on the plate in front of his empty chair turn to a gelatinous sludge, while sipping wine.
I make the mistake of commenting that he maybe should have skipped coming, as he has been so preoccupied and absent most of the day- that he couldn’t have possibly enjoyed the gathering.
“Mom, there is an infant that is one day old that is going to be taken away from its mother this evening. I have been on the phone with police and child services and coworkers and hospital social workers, coordinating the details and logistics. I am sorry I ruined your holiday.”
I sit in the chair after he leaves, and feel tears of shame and regret snake their way down my face in the dark like they did all those years ago.
The year he is 7, he ends up with strep infection and goes into a delirium state. I pull him into the bed beside me, and feel the burning heat coming from within his thin body. I rock him a bit, feeling his rigid limbs slowly relax against the softness of my stomach. He eventually drifts off into fever dreams and upon awakening, tells me stories of pirate ships and buried treasures and makes me pinky swear I will always remember the location of the buried treasures. He says he will not remember it when we really need it when the bad times come.
He tells me he can save me with the treasures he will bring me.
The summer of his 13th year, while I recuperate from the accident, he works full time landscaping. We are living in an apartment, with no air conditioning, in the midst of a heat wave. My mother far away has taken my younger son for the summer; I am unable to care for him properly in my broken state.
He goes to work at 6 in the morning and doesn’t come home until the evening, working long hours in the heat like a man, coming home with brown skin and hair bleached by the hot sun.
He asks for my bank card and runs across the street to buy hot dogs or pizza pops or bacon- anything he can find at the convenience store that will feed us both for dinner.
He never complains, cooks for us both and then falls into his bed to rest for the next day.
He tells me that we need to talk about how often I am taking the pain pills and we make a plan together for me to wean myself off of them safely.
I begin to heal.
He arrives at my home the day of his breakdown and I sit with him.
I bring him cool water and stroke his hair and encourage him to breathe, while I strap my blood pressure cuff to his arm. I watch the numbers on the machine go higher and higher and higher, but tell him in a calm voice that everything will be ok, and just breathe.
My eyes fill with tears he cannot see as the numbers on the machine blur into the ages that my father and my brother died from heart attacks.
He worries about letting the children and his coworkers down and I remind him to breathe.
He worries about picking his girlfriend up at the airport in 3 more hours and I remind him to breathe.
He apologizes for scaring me and bringing his troubles my way and I notice that we are breathing together in perfect sync – slow life-sustaining breaths together.
I take him to my doctor across the street from my home and he tells him it is anxiety and lack of sleep and that he will be ok.
He sits with us both and reassures us that this too shall pass.
The year he is 15, we have a stupid argument over him not cleaning up after himself.
He is a man now physically and feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof as only teenaged boys can.
He has started to lip me back when I scold him about things and I sometimes search desperately to see even a trace of my baby in his angular features. I need it to remind myself that this isn’t some random male yelling in my house. I am mostly angry that year, for a variety of reasons, most of them having nothing to do with him or his brother. I am in school trying to better myself and my earning potential for all of us, and worrying constantly about keeping food in the house for my sons.
I decide to employ the silent treatment on him, and I go 24 hours or more without speaking to him.
I walk past him in the hall and the kitchen and do not respond to him when he speaks to me.
I am on the computer in the spare room when he walks in and approaches me.
It feels like a Mexican stand-off- him looking tearfully into my eyes and me looking back at him coldly.
“Mom, I can’t take you not speaking to me- it reminds me of when you had your accident and everyone said you were going to die. This is what it would have felt like living without you.”
I took him in my arms on that day and held on for dear life, thinking about the treasures he told me about all those years ago, how he knew he would save me someday, how it all came to pass.
Shannon Lange is an emerging writer and who has worked in healthcare for the last 25 years. She is also the mother of two adult sons, one a film maker, and the other a musician. Shannon and her family value creativity in its many forms, and her dream is to be able to write full time.
THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND