It was lopsided, struggling in the mulch, and we squinted at the tiny creature lurching under our backyard birdfeeder. “Its wing is broken,” my son said with finality, his fingers smudging the window. “What should we do?” he asked.
I looked at him blankly. Though sympathetic, I didn’t intend to do anything about the little bird. My son, however, found an old shoebox, lined it with newspaper and birdseed, and went outside. Returning, he Googled animal sanctuaries in Indiana and drove to the closest one, thirty minutes out into the country.
A few moments after he left, I returned to the window to address the smudges and spotted the culprit. A hawk skimmed the water remaining on our pool cover before landing in front of me, searching for his handiwork.
* * *
My son left for college a few days later.
In the months leading up to his departure I’d indulged in mountains of photos of his babyhood, allowing memories to re-animate, and one in particular surfaced repeatedly. Soon after his birth I’d visited my parents’ home to introduce him to my grandfather, who lived with them through a long illness.
My grandfather creaked his way across the room and lowered himself slowly, slowly onto a chair, wheezing at his exertions. I approached him, set my baby on his lap, and watched as they seemed to lock eyes. My grandfather laughed gently, passed his hand over the little head in blessing, and looked up at us. Maanchi Vaadu, he said in the Telugu language, smiling.
A good person.
Caught up in the moment’s sweetness, I didn’t think much about these words until my mother brought them up later that evening. “He didn’t say that lightly, and he doesn’t say that about people often — certainly not about babies. He knew something about your son.”
A good person.
* * *
As nostalgic as I feel now about that time in my life, I also remember its shadow side. Motherhood knocked me sideways, made me sacrifice all manner of beliefs and expectations at the altar of experience. I’d thought I was a strong and energetic person, but there I was, daily leaning over the edge of my endurance. Some days I could only sit baffled at the abominable ignorance (arrogance?) I must have had, not to comprehend the duties, the responsibilities, the sheer physical labor of a parent.
I’d thought I could work as a lawyer and take care of a child, simultaneously and well. Instead, I watched my friends quickly return to work post-childbirth, while I wept and wondered why I no longer desired to do the same. I battled myself continuously, second-guessing my decision to meander exclusively through motherhood’s uncertain corridors. For many years, I could not find peace with myself and my choices.
My second child followed seventeen months after my first. Blearily, I watched other mothers handle their offspring — often more than two — with ease, while I cleaned vomit from my blouse or struggled with a stuck stroller or rocked a screaming infant on the airplane. I listened to their strongly-voiced opinions about the optimal duration of breastfeeding and the advantages of the family bed and the environmental sustainability of cloth diapers, and I lamented all of my missteps.
When the early fog cleared in pace with the growing sentience of my children, I moved on to other methods of self doubt (torture?). Was I providing the right foods? progressed to Was I providing sufficient athletics alongside academics? Was I providing enough exposure to their culture and heritage? Was I balancing my expectations of achievement with opportunities to explore personal passions? There was, it seemed, no end to my bewilderment.
Through this fabric of my confusion, of course, little rays of light shone through — exuberant renditions of “The Song of Sylvester the Snake,” adamant insistence on matching Bob the Builder Halloween costumes, unusual variations of Marco Polo in the pool. And as they grew older, surprising opinions about politics and world events — and jokes so awful that they were hilarious.
Now that one child has taken his first independent steps into the world, I look back and wonder: shouldn’t that fabric have been reversed? Shouldn’t the sweetness have dominated my confusion? As my son defined and occupied his identity, how much had I missed due to my preoccupation with my own parenting journey? How much had I missed of this miraculous unfolding, unfurling of a human being?
Now, on the other side of that journey, I only wish I’d paused daily to see the world through his eyes, to watch what engaged him, to heed what he found beautiful or important or deplorable. I wish I’d witnessed each piece and layer and fragment that made the mosaic of him.
Instead, I can only view him in retrospect and gather the pieces I remember.
When I do so, I see the five-year-old who stopped me from killing the moth that slipped in the house. I remember the ten-year-old who insisted our whole family volunteer at a local soup kitchen. The teenager who learned about the global water crisis and then designed an app to promote conservation, who puzzled how to donate resources to the homeless in a manner that honored their dignity, who fought for gender inclusion in the clubs he led. And the 18-year-old who helped launch nonprofits committed to better education and to engagement of youth in the political process.
I am humbled by who he is, humbled at having had the privilege to usher him into the world, thankful that he has thrived despite my perplexed parenting, gratified that he fulfills daily the prediction-benediction he received almost two decades ago.
And I think of him now, finding his way, launched into a world whose status quo frightens me. But my fear for our collective future is counterbalanced by my belief that all will be well, as long as there is such a child, one who defies the circling hawks, cradles the earth in his hands, feels its beating heart, and does the needful.
Notes: Of my various and overlapping life journeys, motherhood has been the most difficult and simultaneously, the most delightful. I was not ready to redefine my identity so completely, nor to to feel so incredibly flawed and vulnerable. Looking back, I fear that my preoccupation with parenting, ironically enough, made me miss so many moments of joy and light.