In May FDW is hosting a new series on stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by a good friend and sister – incredible writer – who has been an anchor for me here in Bloomington, April Hennessey.
Not so long ago in the hallway outside my son’s room, I caught the scent of my mother. It was some mixture of toothpaste, face cream and all of those other not quite identifiable but decidedly particular smells that make one person detectable to those who have loved him/her. It caught me off guard because I would be pretty quick to say that I don’t believe in the meeting of the living and the dead in those Long Island Mediums ways. And yet, whether conjured from the recesses of my memory or actually present in the ether, the scent of my mother lingered in the hallway. In those few seconds, I recalled the difficulty that the stairs posed as her illness progressed and the way she’d hung heavy in my arms when her legs finally gave out on her. Feeling half-terrified and half-foolish, I’d whispered, “mom?” and then I’d bolted down the stairs without waiting for an answer or the absence of an answer.
You’d be surprised how many near-holy moments happen in that small, liminal space of our house. Perhaps it’s simply because my defenses are worn down—from the day’s unrelenting pace and my son’s indefatigable energy—that I am left open to all the things that well up in and around me. I’ve sat in that hallway more times than I can count, slumped in despair, wondering how I’ll survive the year of the #threenager, cradling my son’s tantruming body, watching the minutes that I’d carved out for peace and quiet just tick by me tauntingly. And then it happens. “I’m ready,” he says. We walk to his bed where he cuddles up to me with his tear-streaked cheeks and says, “I like being close to you, mommy.”
As a child I was like my son—intensely feeling, intuitive and insistent. I suppose I’m not much different in adulthood. But I remember the desperation I felt at three or four for my mother’s presence, for her closeness. And when I stretch my memory back to that time, before the traumas that would fill our lives, before the anger and the defensiveness and the helplessness, I remember the quiet moments when I would beg her to stay just a little more and she would. “Scratch my back,” I’d say and she’d oblige. I can’t tell her how much better I understand and appreciate those strained and exhausted moments of mothering. And I can’t ask her, now, whether they filled her up even a little bit, the way these moments with my son fill me up. I do know, however, how quickly the practice of intimacy gets lost. After all, that’s what these hallway moments amount to.
As we get older, many of us lose the ability to communicate our needs, desires and deepest longings freely. We learn to censor ourselves. We discover fear and rejection. We close ourselves off to things that make us feel weak. We temper our enthusiasm for things and people so as not to appear “uncool” or “too eager.” We forget how to say, “I need you.” “Stay.” “Be close to me.” But our children haven’t yet learned those things. They are intimate with the whole world. They’ll announce their imminent bodily functions to entire grocery stores. They’ll tell their friends and teachers about ours. They don’t think twice about overwhelming us with their endless string of requests, “please-I want-give me-can you-I need.” In time, of course, that external narrative will become internal dialogue. They’ll become increasingly reticent. I hope, however, that my son continues to meet me in the various hallways of our lives. I hope that long after he’s learned to censor himself in the other places, he’ll still speak freely with me.
Just last night I got home late from a meeting. The babysitter told me that she hadn’t heard a peep from him in almost half an hour and that she thought he was finally asleep. As soon as she left, however, I heard his door open. I could tell that he was waiting at the threshold, sniffing me out. How did he know, I wondered? We had been so quiet in our comings and goings. Maybe he sensed the shifting energy or smelled me in the air. Whatever the case, I could almost feel his spidey-senses zeroing in on me. “Mommy? Is that you?” I walked up the stairs feeling exhausted, knowing where things were headed.
But then I saw him standing there in the shadows with his sleepy, impish smile. He nuzzled my nose through the space in the balustrades, “I’m so glad you’re home, Mommy. I missed you. Will you snuggle me?” “Okay,” I say as I take his small hand, “I’m so glad to see you too.” I mean it for my mother as well, for all the times we forgot to be glad and were angry instead. I’m still skeptical, but who am I to say what’s possible in this thin place between life and death, between parent and child. Perhaps she’s been sitting with us in the hallway all along. With a sense of renewed intimacy, I welcome her as my son welcomes me, heart wide open.
April Hennessey is the Family Life Coordinator at First United Church in Bloomington, Indiana and mother to one inquisitive, ever-moving three-year old boy. She has a Master’s degree in English Literature and continues to be a compulsive reader and analyzer of the ways in which we write our various histories. An occasional wordsmith, April is the keeper of a mostly lapsed blog over at despairwithasmile.blogspot.com. She is also a sometimes teacher, a reluctant organizer, a justice-seeker, an impulsive smiler and, generally, a people lover.