Last night, you had a sleepover with a new friend from your hockey team. You were so excited: it was your first overnight at her house and the start of your spring break from seventh grade. Dad dropped you off while I was at your brother’s practice, and that was that. Or so we thought until the phone startled both Daddy and me out of a sound sleep at nearly midnight. You would’ve laughed to have seen us fumbling around in the dark, trying to figure out what was happening, confused by the ringing phone. I admit I was scared. Who was calling at this hour? Was someone in the hospital?
“Mom?” Your voice was small. “I threw up. Will you come and get me?”
I was already out of bed before I hung up the phone. I put on sweatpants and headed straight for the car. It was a quick ride, and you and your friend were waiting for me on her front porch. When you slid into the passenger’s seat, I leaned over and kissed the side of your head. You were silent. As we headed home, I thought about the nights during your colicky infancy, when more than once I put you, crying loudly, in the backseat and drove you around the deserted neighborhood until you fell asleep. Now, you were next to me rather than behind me, but my anxious fretting felt familiar. Like then, I didn’t totally understand what was going on, and I just wanted to know you were okay.
“What happened?” I asked without taking my eyes off the road.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I had brownies in science, fries and popcorn after school, then Shake Shack for dinner, and I just felt really sick, and I threw up.”
I nodded, my eyes still not meeting yours.
“I’m really sorry,” you said softly.
“Stop apologizing, Grace.” I reached over and squeezed your thigh. You were wearing running shorts and your legs were bare. It was nearly spring.
We arrived home and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. Standing by the fridge, I wondered when you’d become almost my exact height. Your eyes—wet, rimmed in red—stared at me over the edge of your water glass. There was a flare of desperate longing in them that reminded me of the time when I was a girl living in Paris. Every morning, your Nana would walk aunt Hilary and me three blocks to the little French school we attended. Nana would leave us there, inside the big green metal gate, by the hutch that held large sleepy rabbits. Several times, I recall feeling an intense need for Nana to stay, but I always said goodbye, waving to her as fear galloped in my chest. I remember standing in the courtyard, counting in my head, picturing Nana arriving at home, walking up the stairs, entering our apartment. I could see her in my mind’s eye, and I felt a physical pressure in my chest, sensing that whatever tied us together was unspooling as she walked away from me.
“I think I just really missed you tonight,” you said quietly as you re-filled your water glass. “I don’t really know why.”
I removed the glass from your hand and put it on the kitchen counter, pulling you into a hug. As I held you against me, your back rose and fell as you took deep breaths. I felt like I was kything with you, embodying a concept from Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time that your brother always refers to—the telepathic link that Meg and Calvin share.
In that moment, I felt many of your emotions breaking over my head like a wave: anxiety and fear, an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude mingled with a worry that you still needed something—home—as well as someone—me—so much. The day before, we’d learned that one of your best friends since birth, your god sister, was likely headed to boarding school in September. That made the notion of your own going away for high school, something we have talked about for years, very concrete. And though you seemed happy to have this new friend from hockey, the relationship was still unfamiliar, and you were already exhausted from long nights of studying and schoolwork.
All of these things, I was sure, led to you feeling ill at your friend’s house. And none of those things needed to be said. I understood them all too well. Instead, I simply stood there, holding you, our breathing falling into sync.
Finally, you pulled away, whispering, “I love you, Mom.” Together we headed upstairs to your bedroom. I tucked you into bed, pulling your comforter around your shoulders. “The sheets feel so cool and nice,” you murmured, closing your eyes. I smoothed the hair back from your forehead. “Do I feel warm?” you asked.
“Cool as a cuke,” I said quietly, thinking about how many times Nana had used those exact words to comfort me when she felt my forehead. I leaned down to kiss you on the cheek. “I love you too, Gracie girl.” You turned on your side with a deep sigh.
As I walked out of your room, I thought, “How long will this intense identification go on? How long will I be a source of calm, able to make your fears go away, and how long will we be so close that I am intimately drawn into your anxieties and emotions?” The double helix of identification is complicated, and while I don’t know how many more months or years it will last, I know it won’t exist forever.
I can’t help but wonder if this is the last gasp of attachment before you push off for the other shore, into young adulthood, away from me. I have to believe that some of my ability to sense the turbulence inside your heart will remain. I hope that so too will remain the way my arms, and my presence, are enough to soothe a little bit of your turmoil. I will certainly always be here, whenever you may need me. I promise.