By Catherine Campbell
I always let them down gently, but firmly. I pick a quiet place with a quick exit. Sometimes I have their things already boxed up—blues records, T-shirts I liked to sleep in, the earrings they bought me on various business trips—so they don’t have to go through an awkward epilogue. I chalk it all up to it’s not you, it’s me, and use some varying formula of “fear of commitment” plus “you deserve better.” I tell them they will find the perfect woman. I wish them nothing but the best. And once I’m home and the door is firmly closed and locked behind me, I pour myself a good drink.
The first question a man always asks when I break it off with him: “Is there someone else?”
I pat their shoulders. “No, of course not.”
I want to tell them the truth.
I don’t introduce my son Thaddeus to all the men I date. Thaddeus is seven. He’s sweet as a candy apple when he wants to be and a little jerk on the bad days, but don’t all parents experience a piece of heaven and hell wrapped up in something that can barely peddle a tricycle?
When Thaddeus’ father and I got divorced, Thaddeus was only a year old, and I promised myself I wouldn’t be the “revolving door” house. We split custody, which I assumed would make it easier for me to kill the loneliness. But surprisingly, I found myself plunging into finding another partner. I came close once or twice, in the form of intense rebounds. And these couple of men met “the other guy” in my life.
There was the Musician, a gentle man with the loveliest voice, who tried to get my son to eat salads. We made it almost ten months, but when he said he loved me, I couldn’t say it back.
Thaddeus was born without his right hand. He’s different. Special needs, his pediatrician says. On IEP reports and insurance forms and checks from the state, he’s considered permanently disabled, a condition that can never be fixed.
“Aren’t we all screwed up?” asked the Water Park Designer, as I was in the middle of dumping him on the front porch after a few intense months. When I had told him I had a kid, he said that was great, but his own father was an asshole and he wasn’t gonna be dad material…ever. It was easy to let that one go.
In the world of single motherhood, there isn’t a lot of time for relationships. It’s like trying to run between two movie theater shows at once, ducking in and out of each room, frantically trying to keep up with each plot. How can I possibly come home after a full day of work, medical appointments, occupational therapy, park play dates, grad school, cook meals for my kid and for someone else, cuddle with a boy and then a man, make meaningful conversations, and have sex?
For dinner tonight: quesadillas, just the two of us. Thaddeus practices holding a cup between his stub and his good arm. He paces the kitchen while I assemble the first quesadilla. “Only cheese?” he asks.
I nod and flip the tortilla. “Plain and simple, how you like it.”
Thaddeus repeats it in a sing-song voice. “Plain and simple.”
After a few rebounds who I thought I might want to love, I went on to date the sure cases of quick implosion. Much older men, men who didn’t want kids (“they impede vacations”), ex-boyfriends passing through town, new widowers who bawled in my arms, the separated husbands—still angry and lost—the men who just needed a good preening and a road map to get them back on their way, away from me.
The terms “amelia,” “anomaly,” and even “difference” all sound much more pleasing than the word “disabled.” But I can’t help use it all the time. It’s like a red light in the intersection of a sentence. It has meaning, it has consequence. People just stop and nod. They don’t need me to explain much more.
There’s a chance it was genetic. I remember how, after Thaddeus’ diagnosis, his father and I held our hands together in the ultrasound office, scooting closer, studying each other’s palms and fingerprints for the first time.
I shuffle spiders out of corners, finish client reports, fold another load of laundry, repaint the flaked white trim long into the night. In the morning, the Spiderman lunchbox sits flap-open on the counter. Jar of peanut butter. Clean knife. At 7:10 a.m. every morning, I make his lunches. The backpack is stuffed, the prosthesis is carried or worn, and then through the car window, I watch my son blow me a big, public kiss as the kids rush around him to beat the class bell. On the weeks when Thaddeus is at his father’s house, I sit on my back stoop alone, overlooking the garden, watching the cardinals burrow themselves into sunflower heads. I myself am starved. I shower and go to work.
One autumn, on a five-day romp through Boston, I met a man who was absolutely perfect on paper. Handsome and funny, he bought me a beer before a Red Sox game and he fed me oysters afterward. I flew back to North Carolina expecting it to end, but instead of the “So long, farewell!” single date, we stayed in touch, made travel plans involving direct flights and long weekends. I met his parents for Christmas dinner. We lounged like cats—smart, mature, romantically compatible cats—on the sundrenched couch of his living room. Each time I would fly home to Thaddeus, refreshed and focused. Boston Guy made me feel beautiful. We would text each other excitedly about the latest TV episode we both watched. I told him I had a son, and he laughed at my funny stories about my son’s antics. We didn’t talk about Thaddeus’ disability. We talked about everything else.
He was 900 miles away, which, I figured, would give me plenty of time to fall in love with him and warm up to the idea that I could slowly bring two special men together in my life. After years of flitting away so quickly, this time—I told myself—I would stick around because I could. No pressure to jump into the hard stuff just yet. It was going to happen. After I opened my heart to this man, I would finally have a normal triangle family with love and acceptance and all the fairytale trimmings.
“Will I ever grow a hand?” Thaddeus asks. He has crawled into my bed again at 5:00 a.m., shaking off a bad dream. He traces my face with his stump. His eyes are big, the shade of blue that makes you feel like you’re sailing paper boats on an endless day. The first girl to break his heart—what will she look like? Will she let him down easy as she can and what formula of stereotypical things will she say? Will she have his things already packed for him?
“You won’t grow a hand,” I tell him, and hold him so he’ll fall back asleep. “But I have extras. I can help you whenever you want.”
One afternoon, I was on the phone with a friend. My relationship with Boston Guy had just ended on an amicable yet bittersweet note. The distance is just too much, he said. It’s not fair to either of us. I cried a lot more than I expected.
I called a friend for consolation about Boston Guy, and then the topic turned to what it was like to raise our sons. At one point, we started talking about Thaddeus’s disability, what teenage life might be for him. I tried to spin the positive as I always had, going on and on about prom and guitar lessons and driving the car.
“But you can’t know that,” my friend said. “None of us can know exactly what Thaddeus is going through. You’ll never be inside his head. No matter how close you are to him, you’re not him. You have all your parts of yourself.”
The first girl to break Thaddeus’ heart probably won’t know what she’s doing. Maybe it will have nothing to do with the fact that he can’t tie his own shoes or cut a steak, or that she is tired of standing on one side of his body, the only one with the fingers that interlock with hers.
Lowering myself onto the couch, I stared at the coffee table in silence.
“Hey,” my friend said over the line. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Still here.”
We talked a bit more, and then hung up. I sat and repeated the conversation in my head. Still here. It dawned on me that not once had I ever used the phrase “me time,” it was always non-mommy time…a worn groove of a joke among my friends. Not once had I left the word mother out of the description of myself: on resumes, through social media, at cocktail parties. My identity as the mother of a disabled child floated around everywhere.
When I found out I was pregnant, my sister had said, “This is the best and longest companion you’ll probably have.”
The way she blurted it out, like it wasn’t coming from her but from somewhere else we couldn’t possibly imagine, and why she was saying that a tiny bean of a something growing inside me was going to be a better person than my husband didn’t make an ounce of sense.
Will I ever fall in love beyond the love and commitment I have for my son? Will I be able to hold both loves at the same time? I’m scared that the answer may be no in the end, so I guess for now, I should just say, I don’t know.
What I do know is right now we have T-ball practice.
Thaddeus and I walk a few blocks to the recreation field. I’m lugging the T-ball set while he’s skipping along and whistles to himself while I set it up. Try-outs will be here in a month and I want him to have a fighting chance. I don’t want people to notice his missing hand but they will. So we practice throwing and catching. We use this trick we found on a video of a one-armed kid playing baseball, this trick of flipping the glove from hand to underarm. Thaddeus is not very good at catching. Perhaps it runs on my side of the family. We do drills: rolls, pop-ups, batting practice
My son swings and connects, it’s not the satisfying crack of a wooden bat but a THUMP of two plastic toys, and the ball whizzes past my head with startling ferocity. “Okay, now, run as fast as you can!” I yell.
He drops the bat and throws all of his tiny force into a sprint, rounding first, then second and third, reaching home. Yes! I throw my arms up in victory.
But he doesn’t stop. He runs another lap, pumping his arms, his stump and his natural hand blurry with speed. He runs another lap. As he circles, his face is lit up. He’s laughing. I tell him to keep going, heck, we’ve got all day. I stand on the pitcher’s mound, and for a moment I wonder what it would be like to see a third person in this field, someone on the horizon, holding the plastic ball in their hands, and what it would be like if I could wave that man infield, my arm moving in a way that already felt warm and familiar, gesturing for him to come closer.
Catherine Campbell’s essays and fiction appear in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Arcadia, Drunken Boat, Ploughshares online, and elsewhere. Her work has been anthologized and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Find her on Twitter @thecatcampbell