I didn’t tell him that the only thing I wanted in this life was to be his mother again.
In early July, my eldest son, Jacob, called to say he couldn’t make it for my dad’s birthday party at the end of the month because his boss wouldn’t give him the time off. He had moved from Albuquerque to a small town in northern Wyoming almost a year earlier and I’d only seen him once since.
“Oh, man. That sucks. I was so excited to see you,” I said, trying hard to express my disappointment without laying any guilt on him. We chatted for awhile and when I hung up the phone, crushed because I ached to put my arms around him, to put my head on his shoulder the way he rested his head on mine for the first 13 years of his life when I knew him so well I felt like I could read his mind.
He said he couldn’t come and then, two days before my dad’s birthday, I looked out the window and Jacob’s truck was in my driveway. I ran through the house and out the front door and then I was hugging him, gorging on the feel of him, squeaking in his ear like a pre-teen girl, “You’re here! I can’t believe you’re here! You said you couldn’t come!”
I pulled away from him and he shrugged. “I thought it would be fun to surprise you. You really didn’t know?”
“I really didn’t, and I was so sad,” and I squeezed him again, making him laugh.
During the six days of his visit, I made Jacob a little nutty with my desire to hang onto him. Hungry for his presence, I wanted to hug him, sit next to him, be near him. He’s 21 years old, so the fact that he’s moved away and into a life of his own is normal, but the story of our relationship isn’t one of a son who lives with his mother until he’s grown and ready to move away. Jacob hasn’t lived with me since he was 13, when he left my house in a storm of fury and pain to live full-time with his dad. For the next five years we rarely spoke or saw each other as Jacob’s dad exploited my parental weakness during a time of crisis in my life and taught Jacob to hate me.
I remember a phone call soon after Jacob’s 18th birthday and I was resting my hot forehead against the cold window of my bedroom, tears rolling down my face and neck and into the collar of my shirt and I was silent. I will hear his pain I said to myself as he spoke his anguish to me. I don’t ever have to see you again. I don’t have a mom. You never loved me. Do you hear me? Are you listening? Do you know that I hate you? You will never see me again.
I hear you, I said. I’m listening, I said, and the cold window against my forehead was a lie because the world was burning and I burned with the world until I was a heap of ashes on the floor in front of the cold window, my pain the only solid thing left of me.
Two weeks after the phone call that burned me to the ground, another phone call, this one asking for help. “I don’t know what to do, Mom. I failed most of my classes last semester and I can’t find a job. I was afraid I’d end up working in fast food forever, and now I can’t even get some shitty job frying burgers.” I heard the tears and fear in his voice and I prayed before each word I spoke: I’ll help you. We’ll find a way for you to get your high school diploma that isn’t so hard. I love you I love you I love you. I didn’t tell him that the only thing I wanted in this life was to be his mother again.
I hate navigating large bureaucracies and Job Corps registration isn’t a quick or easy process, but I enjoyed it because it meant time with Jacob. As we gathered the paperwork that Job Corps required, I savored teaching Jacob how to create a home filing system. We shopped for shower shoes and toiletries and I never once checked my checking account balance, so thrilled was I to do this most ordinary of parental tasks. I was so filled with joy I was nearly giddy and I had to remind myself to match his mood, lest I annoy him so much that he would decide to ask his dad for help instead of me.
I don’t know why he lay down his bitter anger that day to call me; I’ve never asked. I only know that we explored his options together and, when he chose Job Corps as a place to finish high school and get some job training, he let me help him register for their residential program. We nurtured our nascent relationship on a dozen thirty-minute drives to the campus, talking about books, music, and his future, but never his anger. Never my pain. We didn’t talk about us, or the five preceding years when we scarcely spoke at all.
During Jacob’s visit at the end of July, I wanted to insist that he spend all of his time with me, but this is a family, and families are better when they’re made up of volunteers, not hostages, so I controlled my urges to beg and demand. We went out to dinner, celebrated my dad’s birthday, and spent a couple of long afternoons working at our respective computers at my dining room table. I was ebullient when I was with him and melancholic when he spent time with his friends, but I tried to remember that 21 year olds want to spend time with their friends and that’s a normal thing, not a rejection of me. The years without him have left me scorched and shriveled and Jacob’s presence is like water, but it’s not his job to heal me. I mourn over the years we lost and the relationship I wished we would have, but if I turn my grief into his guilt, I’d shift a burden to the young man whose burdens I want to ease. I’d not see our relationship become a malignant thing again, as it was during his teens.
After six days in Albuquerque, Jacob returned to Wyoming. I hugged him three times as he tried to leave and I ached to keep him here, but I didn’t beg because no matter her feelings, the parent of a grown child doesn’t have that right. I urged him to be careful, to drive safely, and there was a pleading note in my voice because I’ve lost too much time with him to lose more.
We talk on the phone a few times a month and if the conversations are uneasy sometimes, it’s because we don’t know each other as well as we’d like, not because there is acerbity under the surface. Discomfort and unfamiliarity are better than bitterness, but it isn’t the ease and intimacy most parents would hope to have with an adult child. When Jacob calls or texts me, I always feel a thrill. In between the calls and texts and all-too-rare visits, I miss him, and I have learned to live with the missing. I’ve become accustomed to the grief for the years we lost and the relationship we might have had. I hold the grief in one hand and my tremendous gratitude for the gift of being his mom in the other, and most of the time the two balance.
Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style.
Photo: Casey Frye