Before Nathaniel and Serena stepped off the plane here in Seattle, I had a plan. I would grant myself three magic wishes. One wish was to practice what it felt like to be a different kind of mother from the one I had always been. This new mother allowed her children to stay up as late as they wanted to at night. Meals were haphazard and no one minded. There was lots of laughter. This new mother stepped back, let go, and trusted. This new mother reveled in each moment of being with two of the people she most loves. First wish, check.
My second wish was to show the children my world. By seeing where I live and the things I love, they could see the person I have become. We hiked shady forested trails, stood on the dock watching the sun sink into the purples and dusky blues of the bay, vied to beat one another’s Wii Sports scores, and sprawled on my robin’s egg blue sofa talking about anything that came to mind. Second wish, check.
In fairy tales, the third wish is always the most magic wish, the one that’s the crux of the story. My third wish for this visit was for Nathaniel and Serena to feel that I am still there for them, only in a different way. I wanted them to feel loved. Last year when I first left Pennsylvania, it felt like our parent-child relationship had moved to another country, one where we didn’t yet know the language or the customs and everything was unfamiliar. We had to create our own language as we went along, step by step, and the first few months weren’t easy for any of us. The brushes and paints of our past were familiar but our relationship was now an empty canvas waiting to be filled with color. Serena claimed the studio I work in as her sleeping place. Old silk saris in turquoise, purple, and bright green line the walls and sloped ceiling and you can clearly hear the wind chimes hanging just outside. The first night we climbed the little ladder to the second floor together and talked before she fell asleep underneath the multicolored silk sky. “I love you,” I said, her golden brown eyes shining, “I’m so happy you’re here.” So many of my over-the-phone I-love-yous became lost in the 3000 miles between us this past year. After our words slowed and her eyes grew heavy, we hugged and I kissed her and turned off the light, descending the ladder again to the living room where Nathaniel sat, his face lit from underneath by the glow of his laptop.
Thirteen-year-old Nathaniel towers over me now, like a giant man-boy unsure of his place in the world, in the family. One night nothing seemed right. He wanted something but stayed silent, petulant. If he had been smaller I would have taken him on my lap. “May I hug you”? I felt a little shy asking; when I was growing up hugs were infrequent and awkward and I felt that legacy now. His face lit up and his grin lost its teenager shyness. I wrapped my arms around his lanky frame and buried my nose into his neck, smelling the soft spot there that I always loved. His silence came unbound and we talked into the night.
Nathaniel and I have always been alike; we share coloring, tastes, and sensitivities. Learning to understand him as a toddler helped me to understand myself. For years I read his feelings with a glance, and he seemed relieved that my innate understanding of him meant he didn’t have to explain himself. I thought that’s what motherhood was, crawling into one another’s hearts. When I left Pennsylvania last year I could feel him trying to reach me. I feared he thought I was abandoning him. But I know he’s learning his way around this foreign country.
Nathaniel instant messages me daily and we’re connected on Facebook and Skype. I feel him reaching toward me often, like he is two years old again and sits in the afternoon embrace of my lap, his sturdy little back snugged tight against my belly, my breath fluttering the white-blond hairs at the top of his head. I tell him now that I can’t be everything for him, that no one can. That he can bear the burden of his emotions himself, that he is strong and capable. I hope he believes it one day.
Serena, on the other hand, is finding her wings. The children phoned me the other day as I was leaving the movie theater, and I spoke to Serena, Eric, and Nathaniel while I squinted in the sudden sunlight. Serena had made new friends at school. Eric rode the bus that day. Nathaniel had a sore throat. Serena came back on the phone after her turn. “I forgot to tell you! I’m auditioning for the chorus!” and then, “I love you, Mama.” Her words, my third wish, crossed the 3000 miles between us and lodged in my heart.