Benthic Love: On Mothering & Foraminifera
“I love you.” I pull the blanket taut and lean over her bed for a kiss goodnight.
“How much?” she asks.
We play this game often. I fumble for words of sufficient magnitude. I try to quantify it. I use comparisons that are easy to grasp.
I love you a million times around the sun.
I love you as much as all the grains of sand.
I love you as deep as the ocean.
The basis for her inquiry is not merely to comprehend—she wants to confirm. Throughout her life, separating from me has often not been easy, particularly at nighttime. Her reluctance to let go seems to be hardwired, with the vestiges of tearful daycare goodbyes and overnights at Gramma’s still fresh in my memory even though she is now years past that. Though perhaps irrational, her tears resonate because I am too familiar with the despair and uncertainty that comes when someone you love does not return. And so I tender tacit reminders for her to hold onto until we see each other again, because I know we will. Of course they are never adequate. Clichés and similes inevitably fall short. My love for her will always be greater than any possible container or distance or depth I can summon in these last whispers of the day. They measure deficiently yet I’ve found no better way. I hope she understands they are all woeful underestimates, even when cumulatively considered. I know such clarity might come only if she has a child of her own.
I reconsider those salty depths. As deep as the ocean. Across the world in the shining Pacific Ocean, Challenger Deep is an incomprehensible six point eight three one miles down under the sea along the Mariana Trench. Maximum depth. In hindsight I find it unsuitable to compute the volume of love as I intended. I see my error: such abyssal love exists hidden and though deep, not infinitely so. The benthic zone yields an inadequate accounting.
Then, like the chambered shell of the Nautilus, a new calculus slowly unfolds from the center of my heart. Despite what great scholars have told us, there is a number greater than infinity. We call it love.
As a mother, I imagine I would recognize someplace like Challenger Deep. I would be familiar with the prevailing conditions. Going unseen. Times of darkness. Crushing pressure. And sometimes, desolation. A mysterious sandy bottom where fossils and dead lives settle, histories revealed only when someone decides to go digging. Coming up for air, at times, virtually impossible. Other worlds existing above the surface, untouchable and indulgent. Yes, this is how living in the submerged shadow of mothering sometimes feels. The needs of another put before mine, with the cold, slow drip of resentment penetrating my skin when I forget to breathe.
Not much thrives in Challenger Deep, far down below the undulating surface of water. But, somehow, foraminifera beat the incredible odds, just like mothers. After millennia of adaptation and evolution, these simple organisms have found a way to survive. Only when closely examined is their importance understood and their beauty evident. Just like mothers.
The language of love is deficient. I know this now. And yet I continue to grasp at comparisons. I paint pictures with words and images. I find likeness in other things.
“An opening, orifice, or short passage, as in a bone or in the integument of the ovule of a plant.” Originates from the 17th century New Latin for “hole, opening . . . to pierce”.
“A combining form meaning “that which carries” the thing specified by the initial element”. A “person or thing that bears something specified.” Like conifer or aquifer or crucifer. From the Latin derivative ferre meaning “to bear”
Foraminifera. Hole bearers. The elegant etymology suits them.
I wager it also precisely describes motherhood and one of the most difficult transitions within it: the letting go. I know it is coming and unstoppable. A pinprick hole first pierced my heart the moment I let someone else hold her newborn body. With our hands held less and her stepping toward the helm with increasing frequency and solitude, the hole has slowly enlarged ever since. When she one day rides that current of independence fully beyond my protected, anonymous stretch of sea, I will bear the largest hole of all. That void will ache, I am certain. I already know the wound will never heal.
So when I proclaim that my love is as deep as the ocean, I will stand by it though I know it is deficient. With eyes closed, I will dive far down among infinitesimal creatures living under that vast watery world, the place where tiny mirrors of motherhood can be found hiding in the sand. I will recall the minute and the massive coexisting at those depths, keeping the balance of life tilted forward. I will remind myself that sometimes love is deep enough to be unfathomable.
* Etymology references provided by Dictionary.com
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) with Atlas & Alice, Hypertext Magazine, Swarm Literary Journal, The Hopper, Gravel, Cognoscenti, Washington Post, Mothers Always Write, NYT Motherlode, The Manifest-Station, The Humanist, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of essays and short stories. You can find her on the web (www.kristenploetz.com) and Twitter (@KristenPloetz).