"'First Take My Hand, Now Let it Go"
-- Patti Smith, The Jackson Song
The first time I met Jackson was in the new birthing room of St. Joseph's Hospital in Chicago. I had very recently endured five days of grueling labor, a labor that caused me to hallucinate—I was trying to feed my cat Rainy in the hospital room—and continually retch and vomit, though there was nothing in my stomach save a few ice pops. I, who had long before trained myself not to upchuck for I dread it as I dread death, was unable to quell the violence overtaking me. Even when I had gotten some sort of food poisoning from my favorite neighborhood restaurant at twenty weeks gestation (Walker's, by the way), I exerted mind over matter, though getting rid of the offending food would have helped me heal sooner. At that time I was so desperately ill that I was sure I'd lose the pregnancy and the little boy I knew I carried—I felt his male energy right from the start.
I was in Chicago only temporarily. My brand-new husband Dean and I were in flux midway into my pregnancy, and a week after our wedding in January, we moved from Lower Manhattan to Chicago, on our way to Santa Fe. Dean's magazine outfit left the Windy City to relocate to New Mexico in May, but we had to sweat it out (literally, I'm afraid) in the sweltering city until our baby was born in early June. Dean worked from home during that time, and I worked temp assignments until my ninth month. One of my jobs involved opening Michael Jordan's fan mail. He was away at baseball camp at the time, so I never had the honor of meeting him, but his fan mail policies made me admire the man tremendously. His wife Juanita kindly helped me consider middle names for our expected babe.
After suffering most of that unspeakable labor, I finally got my epidural, after begging everyone who entered my room, even the porter, to give me one. Apparently an epidural cannot be introduced until there is 4 centimeters dilation and it took me an eternity to get to that seemingly unattainable condition. Blissfully, it did come on the fifth day. I wasn't even afraid of the epidural needle, for I didn't really care if I died or was paralyzed at that point, and I never felt the long instrument slide into my spine. All I know is that shortly thereafter, my world of mind-altering pain receded and I was lucid again. The experience was wonderful afterward. The back labor (really it was the sharpest of daggers an unknown enemy had plunged into my lower back, right?) vanished almost instantly. Now I wanted that Arizona iced tea in the cooler we had brought from home, but was no longer allowed to have it. The joke is continually on me.
The baby was born with a full shock of black hair, murky dark blue eyes, and a very swollen face from five days of contraction battering. Still, I thought him stunning and now I had answered my very own question: do the parents of ugly babies really think they are beautiful? Yes. I did acknowledge to both Dean and my sister Mariette—who flew in from Manhattan to help with the birth—that my new son was indeed funny looking. My sister promised me that his little monkey face was only temporary and helpfully pointed out that at least he didn't have a cone head as some newborns sport.
Exactly one week after the birth, we set off in a rental van with our infant, two giant dogs, four cats, and three plants, headed for Santa Fe. Thankfully, Dean never told me about the suspicious funnel clouds he'd spot every now and then as we traveled through tornado alley. Each night we'd set up camp in a roadside motel that allowed dogs. We'd sneak in the cats, set up their litterbox, and make up Jackson's bed with a motel room chair turned toward the wall and lined with pillows, placing his tiny body right in the center, on his back and positioned so he couldn't move. Then we'd turn on the television and watch OJ leading the police on a slow, insane televised chase. It was bizarre theatre if ever I witnessed any, but my life had become so surreal that nothing could faze me.
Once we got settled into our tiny but authentic adobe home with our now gorgeous baby, and all the out-of-town visitors had decamped, the postpartum depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder that had hit right after the birth took front and center. Luckily, it was manageable without chemical assistance, for I was nursing. Well, largely without it, for the occasional Margarita certainly assisted my outlook. Mostly, though, I used my writing—mainly poetry—as a means out of it. It was an exercise of personal catharsis so I published none of it.
A few years later I watched as a wave of Gen X mothers poured their inconvenienced maternal hearts out, whining in print about the unexpected downsides to motherhood. I'll admit I felt smug, maybe even a tad superior—I don't know why. Hadn't I felt the same longings, loneliness, and disappointments? Check. Hadn't I written them down in prose or poetry? Yes. For whatever reason, I chose not to attempt to publish those pieces. The only ones that made it into print were those that dealt with sweet maternal worries, anxieties, and inadequacies—none of the ugly stuff. The postpartum poetry, though, scored me some excellent grades in grad school—all good.
So, pleased with myself, I unwittingly entered the onslaught of Jackson's puberty and teenage years. Aye, I'd say it's major comeuppance time. All those self-satisfied years of successfully parenting not only Jackson, but also his younger brother Luca, and now I'm confronted with the loss of my lovely lad and the emergence of a stranger with bad skin, tin teeth, a horrid temper, and a miserable attitude. Who stole my darling little boy? How, why, when did this transformation happen? Could I have stopped it or somehow mitigated it if I were a better parent?
Of course, I fault myself and my own sinister temper. I made a monster out of my near-perfect son. This self-blame occurs in my finer moments. The rest of the time I throw it all on my husband's genes. He was a miserable teenager and now so is his son. Whether it's his bad or mine, the end result is the same. Where, though, is the real Jackson? The one who sang songs from The Hunchback of Notre Dame before his second birthday? The one who narrated Where the Wild Things Are at age two and a half, to a rapt audience of adults? I miss him so much it physically hurts. I go to the photo albums to assure myself that he did, in fact, exist at one time.
There he is, smiling, happily wearing clothes that I selected for him, entertaining everyone with his incredible intelligence and wit—he recited Hamlet's soliloquy at age three is what I'm talking about. His sunny disposition comes shining right through the pictures. God, but I want my little buddy back. Why does it feel like he died? The sad lines of Patti Smith's ballad "The Jackson Song," written for her own son of the same name, come hurtling back to me. Even when my Jackson was newly born and far from flying away, I cried when I heard Smith's beautiful song (it was on the tape Dean made for my laboring) about a child growing up and away from his mother and father. We used some of its lyrics on the birth announcement.
Don't get me wrong: I love the new Jackson. He has a wicked and sophisticated sense of humor, a hilarious knack for mimicry, and he is the kindest, purest, most sensitive human being I've ever met—not to mention a brilliant mind. He's long and lean, has a black belt in Ju Jutsu, and is learning Japanese—he's always been attracted to that culture. Caveat? He's also becoming egregiously judgmental, way too Goth, impatient, angry, and massively snotty—a true Jekyll and Hyde.
I should have been better prepared for this inevitability of aching change. In the weeks after Jackson was born, I was bitch-slapped with a sudden understanding that I was never again to feel the same peace I did before I became a mother. It occurred to me that having a child was like having my heart take residence outside of my body, fraught with the perils of taking the heart to babysitters and school, and hoping that everyone took good care of my heart so it wouldn't break. Then when I had another little boy, my heart was fragmented so the hazards were greater. The potent maternal hormones infused me with both a strong nurturing inclination and a visceral knowledge that a mother's path is filled with myriad joys, yes, but checkered with many slings and arrows. How many times can a heart be broken and yet go on, by the way?
Last month I had a dream. Jackson and Luca were on swings and I was pushing them and they were laughing babies again. I woke up and started crying. "I want them back," I sobbed to my husband, who, I'm fairly certain, thinks I'm a lunatic. Here's the funny part: when I told Jackson about my dream, he said, "Oh, Mom, that's so sad," and put his arm around me. How can this fifteen-year-old boy have such empathy for something he's never experienced?
When I was a bit younger than my son, my stepmother often used to play the soundtrack to "Fiddler on the Roof." I remember listening to the words of the song Sunrise, Sunset. The subject matter focuses on the passage of time, about children growing up so quickly. I did understand the poignancy on an intellectual level but it didn't make me sad. I wanted to grow up, though I did fear being separated from my father. My mother had died when I was four and the idea of losing my father was literally the stuff of nightmares for me. Still, I'm not sure I had the deep, innate empathy that Jackson naturally possesses, unless it involved a cat or dog, or some type of animal. One thing I know for certain is that those crazy-strong maternal hormones have definitely made an emotional loose cannon of me. That inclination may not serve me well as a parent who must confront letting go in the not too distant future.
Other parents who have made it through the teenage years smile and nod knowingly. This too shall pass, they say. Platitudes never help, do they? Yet I cling to them. I am trying to finish raising Jackson as best I can. The thing that I focus on lately is postponing the hated puberty in my younger son. He's still cuddly and sometimes sweet, and even climbs into our bed during nights after a bad dream. He hasn't yet lost the perfect creamy complexion of young childhood, and has mesmerizing brown eyes, fringed by long and lush dark lashes. That big growth spurt has yet to arrive, but he's now eleven years old and I know it's out there, waiting to greedily grab another of my dewy boys and spit out a teenager.
In moments of mature clarity, I accept that this growing separation is what parents actively nurture. They raise their children to become excellent adults, hopefully—not try to keep them as small children. That is the job we set out to accomplish when we decide to include children in our lives. Why, then, does it hurt so bad, Patti?