“I imagined two people without words, unable to speak to each other. I imagined the need: The color of the sky that meant ‘storm.’ The smell of fire that meant ‘Flee.’ The sound of a tiger about to pounce. Who would worry about these things? For a long time, that was the only word the baby needed. Ma, ma, ma. Then the mother decided that was her name and she began to speak, too. She taught the baby to be careful: sky, fire, tiger. A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin.”
The Bonesetter’s Daughter Amy Tan
On my home altar sits a prayer card for a friend of my twins from Middle School. He died in a car crash a few months ago. I have no doubt his mother can tell you exactly how long it has been since fire took her first born from her five months before his 21st birthday.
As mothers, part of our legacy is the task of teaching our children how to spread their wings and fly from our nest as our heart whispers inaudibly: “Don’t die.” Because we indeed worry about these things. Every day I look at his picture and then my eyes fall to the pictures of my twins and I heave a sigh of relief. “Great is the matter of birth and death. All is impermanent, quickly passing. Be awake each moment. Don’t waste this life.” said the Buddha, and that tells me he was a mother in another life.
As my children grew, I paid attention to their safety with great vigilance. Except when I didn’t.
Teo had developed a bad cough a few weeks after the first Father’s Day since my dad’s death, and the racking sound singed me with the memories of my last phone call with my father and his pulmonary fibrosis cough. We gave Teo liquid albuterol, but it didn’t ease his labored breathing. The advice nurse recommended taking him to the hospital. I bundled him up in his jacket and drove the five minutes to Children’s Hospital in a daze, not wanting to take on doctors with resistance to our alternative health care approach. My watch read 3 a.m. When I opened the backdoor, he was asleep, the rattle quieter. I was thankful to avoid a visit to the hospital as I drove home.
My partner heard the car pull in and ran out.
“Why are you back?”
I pointed to Teo. “Look — he’s sleeping.”
“Linda, he’s really sick. You have to take him back.”
I didn’t want to believe that. He had never taken a prescription drug before the albuterol. Driving back reluctantly, I carried him inside, his head nestled in the crook of my neck, the rattle in his chest stronger. The nurse looked at him and said: “He’s having an asthma attack. We need to admit him. Is this the first time?”
“Yes. How can you tell?”
I stroked his curly hair and held back the accusations gathering steam inside me for being such a fool with my baby’s health at risk.
“See his neck, how the skin puckers in when he tries to breathe? It is a sure sign he’s not getting enough oxygen. He’s working really hard to breathe.”
I looked at him with such tenderness and fear I thought my heart would melt into a pool of butter. “Don’t die.” How did I miss the signs? Following the nurse into a nearby room, she put an oxygen mask on his small mouth and nose. I held him gently, watching the indentations go in and out, in and out, until they gradually disappeared. An hour later I snuggled with him in a hospital bed, wrapping myself around him like a wool cobija, gingerly pushing the little oxygen tubes in his nose while he fought to pull them out. Drifting in and out of sleep, I recalled my promise to not close my eyes and heart to danger again. My father. My son. I had to get a grip. What was I doing in this hospital, so exhausted and so afraid?
Then there was the time I lost my daughter at Universal Studios. She was near me, safe, joyful and free, hanging off the giant Tyranesauraus Rex with her twin. Then she was gone. I searched the paths we had taken, followed the thoughts in my heart. I told the Pinkerton guard, who sent out the word to look for a 6 year old girl wearing a lime green top and jeans. He didn’t ask about her race or her hair, her body type or her two missing front teeth.
Tumbling into my fear, my belief shattered that she would never leave my invisible aura, the shards spreading throughout my body. I had said to my friend a mere hour earlier: “They have a rubber band around them, they stretch it but never too far from me.”
Clutching my son’s hand even tighter, I stepped onto one of the huge escalators going up. When we stepped off at the first landing I turned around and went down. She could not have gone up the three long escalators alone. Where in her life had that been trained into her? She was generally sheltered, I thought. Not able to access that much independence, that much self-confidence.
I wandered around my little self-constructed box, called the lower lot of Universal Studios. If she hadn’t left, then something BAD had made her not be here. “Don’t die.” I could only visit that whisper from around the edges, touch the finality of its existence, feel the tears well up and spill out, circle the wagons again with my friends as they returned from searching for her.
Finally, a guard approached us. She was fine. I got back on the escalators and stepped off at the top, running to the water play area where she sat with a guard. She did not run to me or hug me with the gratitude I felt at seeing her alive and well.
“I turned around and you were gone. I couldn’t find you,” she said. She had lost sight of everyone and gone to the ET ride where we had discussed going next. Not seeing us, she’d gone up, up, up the long escalators, feeling the breeze in her hair, feeling the freedom, the reality that she was alone and she had a plan. Feeling sure of herself, not letting fear creep in, knowing her mami was around and was going to be with her again. Maybe thinking how surprised her mami would be to see her.
Somehow this just didn’t seem to fit. There was something unsettling. Why would she think I would leave and not make sure she was safe and with someone? How had I had a hand in developing this behavior? What had I not said about what to do if she got lost because I never believed it could happen? As we drove home I turned to her.
“I learned something important about you today, but I’m not sure what it is.”
I see children on a sidewalk now without a parent holding their hand or being between them and the street and I still cringe. My twins had been enrolled in martial arts where they learned the 5 fingers of self defense: Think-Yell-Run-Fight-Tell. I picked them up from their middle school rather than have them walk home as long as they could bear it. I was happy to remain their chauffeur when neither expressed interest in driving until they were close to 18. I then took them out and taught them how to be assertive and defensive, how to never go more than 10 miles above the speed limit, how to take their foot off the gas and let the car slow down rather than going from gas to brake to gas to brake. I bought them cars. All the while my heart whispered: “Don’t die.”
Parents with younger children often remark: “Oh, it must be nice to have them be more independent.”
“No.” I say. “The older they get the less I am with them and the bigger the consequences if they have a miscue.”
The death of their friend shook me to the core. His coffin and his mother’s bowed head and broken corazón showed me my whisper has merit; that tigers do pounce and children do indeed die before their parents. People second guessed her son’s decisions, but she spoke with great courage at his funeral to dismiss any blame or delusions that our actions can prevent death when our time has come.
Because of this, our legacy cannot be fear — even as we wear out the soles of the words: “Be careful.” Our legacy must be an unrelenting insistence on honest, loving relationships so that regrets are not present at police stations, hospitals, or funerals. The only certainty for us and our children is death, and we have no control over the when or the how. What we have control over is teaching our children love of self, others, and our community as the compass for action and inaction. It means keeping that whisper low enough so that it never stops us from encouraging our children to spread their wings.
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