I cried in bed this morning. I was tired, sure. Somewhere in the wee hours, a gangly ten-year-old shook me violently. His dream had been detailed and graphic, something about Godzilla, and he woke up gasping, mouth dry and needing his mother. When the alarm trilled a mere two hours later, I really wasn’t ready to hear it. It’s no surprise I was emotional, what with that sea of sleep still lapping at my feet when I sat up on my soft, dry sheets.
Exhaustion was just the doorway. Beyond it was a weird, grief-filled ocean and in my groggy, stretched-thin logic, I decided to swim in it. Grief is such a strange bedfellow. He is stealthy, seeming to find his joy in popping out of unexpected places, catching me unaware. He never asks to visit, though there are dates on the calendar that I know he will come. I know I’ll feel grief sitting beside me on Fat Tuesday, even though the tradition I had with my grandmother hasn’t been enjoyed in over a decade. I expect him on my mother-in-law Jana’s birthday, or on the anniversary of that awful September morning when I looked up from the garden and saw an ambulance in her driveway next door, flashing its promise that everything in the world was about to crash down, while Miah stood beside it yanking his own hair out by the fistful.
Mornings like this though, random Wednesday mornings when the fog lies lovely on the pond and sandwiches must be made for school lunches, I don’t even remember what day the calendar says. I do not expect Grief to grab me, but he did.
This morning, as I thrashed against consciousness, I realized it had been quite a long time since I stayed up through the night with a child that needed comfort. These mornings of inadequate sleep were my usual for a lot of my life. I became a mother when I was nineteen. In the middle of a November night, Jackson burst through my body into the world and suddenly, I was not a girl anymore but a woman. Then when Jackson was still crawling, I saw two lines on a pregnancy test that announced Asher was coming. For ten years, I had babies, nursed babies, woke up in the night and comforted babies. Toby turned three a few days after Benjamin was born, and Ezra was born between the two. Three babies in three years. Over-tired mornings were my portion. Now, they are jolting, and I realize I am no longer adapted to life with little sleep, because I no longer have babies at all.
Benjamin is learning to crochet. His dexterous little fingers looping and pulling yard through itself with a hook that is the same hook I crochet with. He is not learning a lesser version or using a special tool for children. He’s learning to really crochet, and he is doing it well. Benjamin, my baby, is truly not a baby anymore. He reads books. He rides a dirt bike that he saved up his own money to buy. He is my smallest and youngest, the standard of my standing as a mama, the punctuation on this era of parenting little ones.
Don’t get me started on Jackson. He gets in his truck in the morning and drives to school, then drives to football practice, then drives to the Mexican restaurant to eat burritos with his friends. He has a whole life, whole relationships and the only parts that belong to me are the ones he chooses to give me. He drops scraps about how he felt about something that happened in the locker room and about what position Levi is playing in the game this week and I pick these pieces up and hold them dear to my heart because I used to know every single detail of my baby’s life. I used to know every friend he had, every snack he ate, every single thing he learned and loved and now I do not.
He will be seventeen in a matter of days. And after that, we will begin counting down to his adulthood in months and not years. His shoulders are broad, and the muscles under his skin are defined as men’s muscles are. Though I used to slip my feet in his shoes to go pick herbs from the garden, now they flop around like boats. Asher towers over me as well, and though Toby still comes running to my comfort when Godzilla shakes him awake, I know soon his shoes will swallow my feet too.
Amid these truths, I found myself at 6 A.M. My arms longed for those round cheeked sons that used to clutch at my breasts in the darkness. But in the morning darkness, with my arms empty, I realized there is a great grief in motherhood that people do not warn you of. Motherhood, in all her dear and precious rewards, comes at the cost of the ever constant passing away of these people most dear and precious to you.
My five-year-old Asher, that lived in a Mario costume hat and danced to music anytime he heard it does not exist in this world anymore. He is as gone as Jana, as my grandmother, living only in my memory. Sure, I have Asher still. Sure, he sits on the couch in the morning with his curly, teal-dyed hair sticking up from his brow, drinking coffee and commenting on the new Mario movie in his deep and rough morning voice. I would not trade him for that small boy he once was. Of course, I would never trade the way of growing up for the unthinkable alternative of not. But isn’t there still a great grief in this process of rearing babies? Isn’t there such loss in the gain of them growing into men and women?
I don’t know, maybe I was just too tired to simply get up and make the sandwiches. Maybe I saw Grief standing at the door of my heart and made the choice to dance with him for a good, gratuitous wallowing in pain. Or maybe, finally, I have learned that Grief is best given the time he demands, that life goes smoother when you see him and acknowledge him and sit with him awhile. I’m not sure. But as I wiped tears from my face in the mirror and ran the brush through my tangled hair, I realized that one day I will remember football player Jackson and blue-haired Asher, and scared-of-Godzilla Toby and Ezra that knows endless facts about monitor lizards and crocheting little Ben and I will grieve them the way I now grieve their younger counterparts.
The truth is, I would give anything for a time machine, to have just one more day with my babies as babies, but I know very well I cannot have that. Just the same, I cannot have another Fat Tuesday with my grandmother, slurping oysters and discussing the novels we’ve read lately. I cannot laugh in the garden with Jana. I cannot go back. I can, however, spend today with my babies, young men that they are. I resolve that today I will take more pictures. I will ask more questions and gather up the bits of their growingly independent lives and I will treasure them. Unlike my younger years, when my life was a sleep-deprived whirlwind and I had no context of the speed with which the season would pass, now I know.
There may be more mornings with tears. In fact, I think in the early hours of today I resolved myself that it’s probable. But when I truly count the cost of this pain, I’m certain if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t change it. The great grief of watching them grow up is a worthy price to pay for the beautiful joy of watching them grow up.