We sit down at the kitchen island, nibble on pita and feta, and look at each other. It’s been this way since I woke up one morning a few months ago and found a teenager in my home. Maybe I would have been ready, if I hadn’t only had seven years of his boyhood, or if he wasn’t half a year short of turning thirteen, or if his voice had taken some time to coarsen, so I could have prepared myself to hear my boy bid good morning in a baritone that belongs to a man.
I am wistful for the days when he would crawl out of bed, drag his way to the kitchen or living room, and climb into my lap. “Good morning, beautiful baby!” I would say, and he would sit there, in my embrace, silent, warm, and soft, until he would begin to stir into wakefulness.
These days, I have to carve time to converse with my son, ask questions, so he can have something to say, or sit in silence, facing his annoyance with having to delay his race to the iPad for the sake of spending time with me. But I’m going to be away at bedtime for the third time in a row this week, and it’s only the fourth day of the week. The guilt has already started creeping up on me before I’ve even left, this time for an organizing meeting of NYC’s resistance movement against the newly elected administration. So I’m going to make a conversation happen. I tackle the obstacle course with the mastery of an MVP–dodge the eye rolls, use my hearing impairment to encourage him to stop mumbling, so I can read his lips more easily, get past a hundred goods, okays, and fines.
Finally, he’s done putting up props for me to knock down, perhaps because it’s exhausting to erect walls, or perhaps because he can tell that this isn’t one of those times when I’ll agree to accept a wall between us. Either way, he surrenders into my verbal embraces. So, I learn that in Art, he made a collage of New York. In Choir, he sang Stevie Wonder tunes. His favorite line was “fire, keep on burning,” and he sings it to me now, several times, fiercely, like fire is life. In Math, he realized that he didn’t have his keys to the apartment, perhaps because one way in which the apple didn’t fall far from the tree is that numbers will always make us both want to go home. In the counselor’s office, where he had gone seeking help for the key problem, he could hear my students in the background.
“Were you on speaker?”
“‘Cause you can’t hear without it anymore?”
“So, how come you picked up if you were with your students?”
“Because they were just having lunch in my room, and I always answer when they call from either of your schools, unless I’m teaching.”
“So, did they hear my voice when we were talking?”
“Did they say, wow, he sounds so handsome? Did they think I’m a cutie? What were they eating? Did you even eat today, or did you just drink coffee all day? You forgot to put a note in my lunchbox today. But it’s okay, I forgive you. Just don’t forget to do it tomorrow. Do you know Ms. Oliver had her baby? Why are you going out again?”
“To fight for justice.”
“Always your fighting for justice. Everything is always about justice. Don’t you get tired sometimes? You really need to find some time to just chill and have fun. You know that, mommy? Seriously.”
My son and I came to this earth separated from each other by geography, genetics, law, and reason. Yet, as it turns out, souls speak more loudly than all the laws of governments and physics. I know nothing of the afterlife, what came before, what makes the wheels of the Universe turn. But I know that my son and I had walked together before this life we are sharing now, and that, so long as there is life in our bodies and the wheels of the Universe are turning, we will always walk together. Whether this is just or unjust, credible or incredible, we will always save each other, someday perhaps I more than he.
“Take deep breaths, mommy,” Daniel tells me on yet another evening when I struggle to stay afloat, as life’s waves beat me down onto rocky shores. “You need to learn to be peaceful,” he tells me.
He sits by my side, as I weep in despair and guilt. He comforts me. Makes jokes. Dispenses advice worth all the gold in the world.
“Believe in yourself, mommy.”
“You can be happy. You just have to let yourself be peaceful.”
“You don’t need to be so afraid all the time.”
“Can you just try to let yourself be loved? Just for once?”
I must be so proud that my son is so compassionate. After all, he could have forgone the conversation in favor of building something on Minecraft. Lately, many of the houses, gardens, and barns have been for me, when they aren’t for his sister, who prefers castles anyway.
“Wow, Daniel, this is amazing. Where is everyone else living? Why am I in here all alone?” I tease, as I often do when he shares something remarkably intricate and beautiful he has created for me.
“No, this is just where you go to, like, be alone, and, like, write and stuff.”
“Oh, wow. That’s really amazing. All my life, I’ve wanted a room of my own to write, and now I get a castle with a magical garden? Just amazing.”
“Yes, my lady. I will do anything for you. You deserve the best, my lady. You know what I’m talking ’bout?”
I am acutely aware that having a mother who struggles with living as I do is a terrible way to have to learn compassion. But my son’s compassion was learned long before I came into his life. When he fended for himself, conquered demons the likes of which I’ve never known, and always survived.
I saved my son from that life. I saved him once.
He saves me every day. Even when he isn’t trying, even on days he chooses to spend in his room behind closed doors.
We’ve been each other’s keeper for all time, my son and I.