“Call me when you get in, ok, sweetpea?”
“Sure, Mom, I will,” my obedient son responds.
He’s on his way back to school in New York from our home in Connecticut. It’s a few hours on the train. A trip he’s made many times in his two years at college.
But, anything can happen, I think. He could miss a connection. Stand too close to the tracks and fall in while leaning over to see his incoming train. Or, someone could pick his pocket – or worse. There can always be something worse! The premonition of disaster is still in the back of my mind, though I’ve worked hard over the years to dissipate it.
Friends accuse me of being overprotective. One friend says she thinks I would like to enclose my son in a bubble and just let him out on weekends. That is pretty accurate.
Motherhood is strange animal. Even though my son is 20, it feels like yesterday that I could cradle him in one arm. As an infant, I often took him in the shower with me. In our first days together, it was the only way for both of us to get clean. He didn’t like being dipped into the water in his bath, and would cry incessantly. But, if I held him and washed him gently in the warm spray, his cries subsided. Holding tight to his tiny slippery body, I would feel his breathing slow as he calmed against me.
It wasn’t long after I had to let him out of that first protective bubble – the womb – that my internal warning sirens started blaring. I would have been happy to keep him in my belly. Warm, well fed, dependent on all of my decisions. Once he was out, my psyche took a sharp turn. Seeing the vulnerable little pulp of a human being, I knew that he would need my vigilance to stay whole. But, there was something else at work here too.
I had fought most of my life against my family credo – the world is dangerous place, anything can happen. We knew this because it happened to us.
My mother’s cautions throughout my childhood, about everything from crossing the street to trusting strangers, came from a deeper well of fear. I didn’t realize, though, that I drank from the same waters, in fact would have vigorously denied it, until I had a child of my own. But, now I knew precisely where my intense fear for the safety of my child came from. I inherited it.
My parents had one daughter taken from them much too soon. Before I was born, a freak accident killed their seven-year-old daughter, Donna, when a plane crashed into their house. Mom was taking cookies out of the oven, pouring glasses of milk when the roof literally fell in on her world.
My mother took this as a life lesson never to be forgotten. Certainly not when she had another chance with a new child – that would be me. So, you could say she hovered. I learned hovering at an early age. As a child I leaned away from it. As a mother I embraced hovering as my new religion.
After my son, Justin, was born, it seemed like my mother’s teachings had galvanized inside me even as I tried to ignore them. I could actually hear her voice in my head every time I left my baby with someone else for a couple of hours.
“No one will look out for your child like you will – no one,” she told me.
Even though she was there looking out for her child in her home, the unthinkable happened anyway. The commuter flight headed for Newark Airport, just three miles away, lost altitude and sheared the top off of her house. The plane spewed its nearly full tank of jet fuel into my mother’s kitchen. The flames came so fast, the structure around her crumbled so quickly, that she didn’t realize her older daughter was caught beneath a ceiling beam with her leg trapped under tremendous weight.
When Donna called to her that “The baby is on fire!” my mother instinctively ran to her two-year old in the front room and smothered the flames with a nearby blanket. She rolled the baby, Linda, down the stairs to the front door, thinking someone would be able to open the door and rescue her. But, the door locked just as Linda’s smoldering body landed against it. Mom ran down to unlock the door and found a man standing there. As she handed Linda over and turned back to get Donna, the man saw the ferocious flames inside the building and held her back. Almost immediately the top floor collapsed. The stranger at the door saved my mother’s life, Linda’s and mine.
Donna, however, was lost. Her final cries of “Mommy, mommy, help me. . .” echoed in my mother’s ears for the rest of her days.
Of course, that is not the end of the story. Linda barely survived, with third degree burns over 80% of her two-year-old body. She endured many years of reconstructive surgery. And, we all traveled with her emotionally every step of the way. My parents were both shattered by their loss, but bravely decided to go on and build a family. They decided to have me. But, that’s another story.
It was always clear why my mother felt that the world was a random place, that indeed, anything could happen. Planes fall from the sky -she knew that to be a fact of her life.
But, with my son’s birth, it was my turn to imagine every possible calamity that could happen to my baby in my absence. Whenever I would round the corner to my house, my heart would begin to race, my palms sweat until I saw that he was safely playing inside, or asleep in his crib. I was often close to a panic and my visions were visceral. I could feel him falling, cracking his little head onto the hard asphalt driveway. Blood spurting and ambulances screaming. It was graphic and physical, a weight in my chest.
I always tolerated Mom’s fears for me. Although, as I got older I would screen many of my activities that I knew would alarm her. I didn’t mention flying a glider until I was safely on the ground again. She didn’t need to know about the time I jumped out of a plane at all! Really, what would be the point?
Now, I understand what it cost her to let me go. To let me live my life free of the awareness of how tentative our lives are. The knowledge that we are held here with the stability of a mere twist-tie. Knowing that she could do that, after her loss – that she could still hold on to the hope of joy in everyday life, and ultimately give that to me, finally gave me the courage to do the same with my boy. To let him go, unhindered, into the life he chooses.
But, honestly, I am fine with it if he decides not to tell me about some escapades he knows may worry me. I’m pretty sure he already has a very sophisticated screening mechanism in place when it comes to sharing information about his travels. I believe I am now on a need-to-know basis. Which means, only if I have to pick him up somewhere!
When he has his own child — and these same kinds of fears inevitably unearth themselves from the deep freeze of his consciousness, I hope I can help him understand our legacy and move beyond it. Or, at least, hover gently.