Today, it struck me, without warning and as far as I can tell without any reason. My eldest is the same age I was that last year. That year when she fed us even less, when she locked us out in the brutal cold. When the hitting became beating and the embarrassment became shame and the hunger edged towards starvation. That year when we ate vomit.
That last year, I had a student teacher in the fall. I don’t remember her, not at all, but we found each other three decades later when my daughter’s preschool director and I realized I had been in her class that last year.
That last year, when the school and social services worked every possible angle to get the truth out of us, to save us from what was so evident but that they could not get us to admit. That last year when we needed to be saved before one of us died.
Fourth grade. Nine years old. That’s my eldest now. And I pulled back into my stomach, trying to fold into a shell, because, for just a portion of a second, I allowed myself to imagine him going through what I went through.
I’m lying in bed with her, our snuggle time. Her hair is everywhere, on my face, over the pillow. She has so much hair these days that there’s no stopping its whims and we’re letting it pretty much run the house at this point. Her thumb is in her mouth, two blankies up against her face. She turns, a thin but fierce arm goes around me. “I’m lucky you didn’t die when you were young like your mother did.”
“We are lucky,” I agree. “Do you think about my mama?”
“Sometimes. Because we have that picture.”
“Do you worry about it?”
“Well, it’s very unusual to die that young, and I take good care of myself.”
“Better that your mother took care of herself?” All that hair doesn’t seem to be sapping her brains any.
“I think so,” I respond, and it’s true, because I go to the doctor and get the checkups and would never ignore a warning sign. But it’s a crapshoot, life is, and I know it. “I will die someday, but probably not for a very long time. And when I do die, I will know I have done something wonderful in this world.”
“I will have raised you and your brothers.”
“But, you won’t have raised us all the time,” she objects. “Because when you’re eighteen, you go to college.”
“That’s true.” Whereupon she starts to weep because someday she will have to go to college and leave me behind. “It’s OK, baby. You don’t have to go away to college in thirteen years. You can live at home when you go to college. Most people do.”
We lie there a few minutes more, all hair and tears and blankies, and the sound of gentle thumb sucking eases away a world in which mothers leave children, children leave mothers, and too many nine-year-olds go to bed hungry.