When my son was born he was slender and somber, with a small cap of black hair. He remained slender and somber, but the cap of hair grew quickly into a black-brown thicket of curls; I used to stare at the spiraling tendrils draping his tiny alabaster neck as one gazes upon a Donatello. He was, and remains, a beautiful, even ethereal child, skin white like a high cloud, limbs thin as antelope bone.
He was my first living child. I gave birth to him after losing still-born identical twin boys, little creatures I am sure would look today exactly like him. He developed in a body encased in unresolved grief and overly protective fear: will this be another death will this be another death will this be another death… the 9 month mantra. Surely, I think now, as I watch his world disintegrate, this is the cause, the answer, the underlying mystery to his illness, and it is one that cannot be fixed. Believing one has harmed a child is to live in a shadowed, secret land of the non-incarcerated condemned.
For the first two years of his life, the child was so much my focus, my world, my soul that there was not much difference between his existence in my body and his nascent life as a new little person in the world. He was a delicate jewel, an ancient priceless coin not to be exposed long to air and light; my love was, and remains, something cosmic, divine, like a goddess of single minded fury, selfish, consumed, blind.
Memory: When he was about three, my son and I were in the high desert of northern New Mexico. It was spring. We were staying in a large adobe home on a quiet dirt road. The dry April seemed to swoon with its own awakening warmth: sunsets of vivid, almost artificial pinks and purples, days of infinite blue and horizons of empty rolling brush. For those who need space, particularly those with the Ayurvedic tendency toward a highly Vata (airy, ungrounded) temperament, which I have to an unfortunate degree, the desert is almost as sacred as the ocean. Space. Sanskrit: akash. So necessary to the mind, so freeing to the body.
One afternoon while his baby sister was sleeping, we took a walk down the silent dirt road. He wore overalls and a plaid button-down shirt. In one hand he gripped his lion and teddy, his companions at the time, and I held the other, my long fingers lightly encircling his tiny palm. Contentment and love imbued every ounce of me: open space, my son, my love, the grace of silence.
Above us were two birds, swimming with extended wings through mellow tides of high wind. “Look,” I said to my little boy. “Those birds. Look how together they are. They seem to be good friends.” I looked down at him, and his calm indifference. “I think it might be time, Little One, to look for a preschool for you. That way,” I lowered my voice as I spoke the words, as if knowing what was to come, “you can make friends too. I think you might like a few friends, yes?”
He glanced up at me, huge eyes so much older than his soft pale face. In a wise, calm voice he said, “Oh Mama, I don’t really have friends. I don’t need them.”
I never knew it was odd that my toddler son, barely two, would focus on solving 100, then 200 piece puzzles for two, three, four hours on end. Every day. When the images lost their interest – I think now they never even held his interest – he simply turned the white sides up, and solved them from shape alone. And I never thought twice about the fact that this child, at the same age, never spoke. He had very little language.
Until he did. One day he spoke about three words, none clearly. The next day, something switched on in his brain. He spoke his name perfectly, running around in joyous circles as he did so. Two days after that he was speaking in complex paragraphs, reams of information issuing from his growing, mysterious mind.
Escaping my notice as well was the strange manner in which my son read. Or didn’t read. He was obsessed with books, and would sit every day while I read 6, 7, 10 books at a time, multiple times a day. My voice would grow weary. “Gan,” he would say, his simple word for “again.”
And then the day after kindergarten’s end I took my child to Tattered Cover. I bought him the Little Bear books. The next day he read them. All of them. He never learned to read. To this day he could not tell you what a “sight word” might be, or what the value is in showing one’s work for math, which he has also taught himself, or visualized to himself; I will never know because he cannot show his work.
Eventually along the way it was pointed out to me that my son wasn’t “normal.” Because my values tend toward the classical and deeply conservative within the context of education, I dismissed the label as simplistic; in my idealized understanding of the intellect, every child should be trained as an auto-didact, and my son was simply following that path.
But he wasn’t. Or, perhaps his intellect was, but his emotional life was slowly growing tattered, stunted, frustrated and cold. I made huge, unforgivable mistakes: I moved him a lot. When he rejected attending a preschool because he wanted to stay with me I simply withdrew him. I tried a charter school. Then another. Then our local school, which has “good” scores but seems rather to me like a large daycare with a lot of experience in discipline management.
I moved to the suburbs, despite the fact that I hate them, thinking the comparatively bucolic life at a tiny local elementary, the fresher air, the “family” centered sports complexes located a half mile from us – it would all add up to the simple, calm, curious and happy life I had imagined for my children.
None of that happened, but the move did succeed in ending a marriage that had in truth been over for a long while. And the school indeed was small enough, and rich enough, to finally give a “label” to my son, and, more recently, to my struggling daughter. I remain grateful for the help, the guidance, but more lost than ever as to what path to take with two children who live in vastly different worlds, the elder’s a universe of control, analysis, and raging delusion when life takes its unsuspected turns; the younger a self-enclosed island of visions and color, empathy so attuned it’s like a daily blood letting of her mind, and apparently almost no memory or capacity for the “facts” of our hard hard reality.
Most days now are consumed with dragging my exhausted body through the memories and details of my son’s childhood: at what point did I fuck up the show? Did I not nurse long enough? My worshiping, intense nature was surely the ruin of him, and taught him that rage is better than reason, because a demi-god doesn’t need reason. Too much love, not enough wisdom… and then on to my daughter, who’s odd mind, so imbalanced and ill suited for this world, was surely created by my eating disorder, not enough protein in her breast milk, not enrolling her in Waldorf when it was clear she belonged there.
How does a mother uncoil herself from the narcissism of self-flagellation when one – or more – of her children show signs of illness? I know it is useless, this form of self-loathing and punishment, but I am an addict of masochism in almost all its forms; how could that force not be present in my understanding of myself as a mother?
How does a mother disengage? The wise Buddha heart knows that the truest love is, in a manner, the most indifferent: it is something pure, untouched by outer circumstance. But the Mother, as archetype, and certainly as my own experience has taught me, is the opposite of this distant, perfected purity. The child is her body, her body is the child, quite literally, and forever.
When I was on a trip to the Yucatan a couple years ago I fell in love with pelicans. There were four occupying our little patch of sand. I spent hours and hours watching them, missed them when they left at sunset, worried if they weren’t there promptly the next morning.
I learned later that the pelican is a sacred symbol in the Christian canon of Mother-imagery: the birds are said to pluck the feathers from their own chest to offer nourishing blood to their young.
When my son is lost to himself, when his mind becomes a slaughterhouse of accusatory rage and desolation, the pelican, her white chest bloody from bonded love, resonates far more than the wiser profile of a bodhisattva.
After the storm, however, comes the fatigue. The Eastern sun, encompassing, beautiful, slowly rises, and together we turn to face it.