By Lorri Barrier
It is day five of my oldest son Ian’s first week away at camp. It is a totally unplugged camp, which is good for him. Like most twelve year olds, the virtual worlds of Minecraft, Pokemon and Zelda are his reality. This also means he is unplugged from me. He’s been to sleepovers and stayed weekends with grandparents, but this is different. I can’t call at night. I can’t check and see if he remembered to change underwear or clothes. If he’s eating enough. If people are being nice to him. If he’s having fun.
I saw Ian last on Sunday morning, when another mother and two kids going to the same camp picked him up. I stood at the car window and called him “sweet pea” out of habit. I realize now I shouldn’t have done that, but it just slipped out. He had sort of a half smirk on his face. He said a little sarcastically, “Bye, Mom!” His blue eyes were shining. He is sweet boy; he always has been.
When I was younger, I said I never wanted children. As an only child, it was probably closer to the truth that I couldn’t imagine children. My experience was limited to a few babysitting gigs at age thirteen, and wrangling a few slightly younger cousins at holiday gatherings. Children seemed like scattered, unpredictable creatures. Even when my husband and I married, I asked him over and over—”You are sure you are okay not having kids?” He says now that he knew I’d change my mind, but I don’t know how he could have known. He never did anything to pressure me, but I did change my mind.
At work, I obsessively check the weather in Burgaw, NC. That’s where Ian is. It’s been mostly cloudy all week, so he hasn’t been too hot. He burns easily. I wrote that on the camp sheet under “Special Concerns.” He sunburns very easily. That’s another thing I would say, if I could call. “Are you wearing sunscreen? On your face? What about your hat? That protects your scalp from getting burned.” If I could call, I imagine Ian holding the phone as I say these things, rolling his eyes. “Yes” he’d say. “Yes, Mom. I am fine. I am wearing sunscreen everywhere.” It would appease me. But I’d have no real idea if he’s doing it or not. But at least I would have heard his voice.
Ian was delivered by C-section. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had childbirth and baby care books everywhere during my pregnancy. I sometimes told people I’d read them, but really, I hadn’t. I’d read a few chapters of each, and then become bored. I like books with a plot and characters. Give me some dialogue. It was hard to visualize what I might do with this baby that was still mostly imaginary. I decided I’d figure it out when the baby got here. That’s the way I’ve done most things in my life—learn as I go.
It’s Thursday, and raining again. It’s rained so much this summer that people joke about monsoon season. Usually at this time of year, the grass is brown and crunchy in North Carolina. Usually in July, I carry water to my tender dogwoods and lilacs at the edge of the woods. Not this year. I watch the rain from work. I’m distracted, I can’t focus. I check the weather at camp. There’s a flood warning in Burgaw. Flooding in some areas is imminent it says. The Cape Fear River is rising as I type this. I have no idea how far the camp is from the river. I know in 1999, there was a major flood at the camp. Water stood at two feet inside the buildings. I saw the pictures on the website. That was almost 15 years ago, my husband would say if I mentioned it. I imagine Ian standing on top of his bunk, the floor covered with water. Would they call if the river flooded the camp? What would be the point, my husband would say. I’m sure they will take care of them and are prepared if that happens.
When they finally pulled him out of me, I cried. C-sections hurt—don’t let anyone tell you differently. I thought of the line from Macbeth, “From his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” The doctor said, “The umbilical cord is all wrapped around his foot!” Then they held him up above the sheet dividing my head from my dissected lower body, and I watched the doctor unwind the cord, bleary-eyed, exhausted. A blue coil, just like a telephone cord. The kind of phone Ian has never used. That’s the kind of phone I imagine him answering, if I could call. I imagine him answering it in the kitchen, the phone hanging on the wall. In the background, through the door frame, I can see the other kids playing board games and ping pong.
“Yeah, it’s raining today,” Ian would say.
“Is anything flooding? Are you okay?” I’d ask, trying to hide the panic in my voice.
“No, Mom. We are fine. I have the rain boots you packed if we go out later.”
I wish I could give a name to this feeling at my core that feels like tangled homesickness, embarrassment, and love. It feels a little like quickening; a primal flutter—what I felt when I didn’t know him, didn’t know what to expect, but I knew where he was. At least I knew he was safe.
When they handed Ian to me, he seemed so small. He didn’t weigh as much as our cat. But I did learn to breastfeed, and he learned to nurse. I learned to change his diapers and bathe him, little though he was. I learned how to pack a solid diaper bag, fasten a car seat, and wear him in a sling. I learned to wake quickly from a deep sleep, walk the floor with him at night, swaying—the dark world reduced to two, mother and son.
This is a different kind of learning. It’s not hands on; it’s hands off.
I imagine Ian will be glad to play his video games again, and he might even be happy to see his younger siblings. He may ask me what I did while he was gone. I worried constantly, but I won’t say it. “Oh, nothing,” I’ll say. “I went to work, came home, went to exercise class, played with your brother and sister, you know, the usual. I missed you.” I see the image of the doctor unwinding the twisted cord from his tiny foot again. The first time I ever saw my son. And I practiced deeply, repetitively, falteringly, grudgingly, the painful art of letting go.
Lorri Barrier lives in North Carolina with her husband and three children. She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC. Her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and Brain, Child. Women’s issues are of particular interest to her. Her blog is available at lorriann16.blogspot.com.
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