I held a blue whale with long teeth in my hands, sticking my fingers into its open mouth, dramatically. And my son squealed with delight. I did it again, and he burst out laughing. I felt the bony fist that had been lodged in my chest for weeks begin to slip its grip, allow a deeper, cleansing breath. You see, my three-year old son stopped talking five weeks ago. He stopped answering questions, calling out for me in the night, chatting in the backseat of the car, telling his brother to come up the stairs. He set our cozy, safe world spinning into silence. In doing so, he became the loudest person in the room.
He became a puzzle that we needed to solve. A wound we needed to heal. A patient that needed every spectrum of testing—one that quickly had a team analyzing his every move. We called it his “recovery process” in an attempt to relocate the words he had been collecting and polishing over the past year.
I began to imagine those words were hiding behind a gate, one secured with an antique lock—impossible to pick. I surrendered sleep to considering every possible element of trauma as the cause. I imagined it was the one night he pulled the blanket over his head, the medication that had breeched the barrier and streamed through my milk, maybe even our recent move into a new house. I tried to insert some form of my own failing into the equation, because being able to identify a cause promised the possibility of a solution.
And then my name fell out of his reach. It was the last to leave, to duck behind that gate. In its place, he tweeted and squealed like a baby bird, made frantic hand gestures, shadow puppets in the light. His silence grew into a shattering din.
I dedicated my days to researching every angle, trying to find the key, pleading with our angels and ghosts to not let him slip any further away. Then, somewhere in between the forms, research, tests and therapy sessions—I started to forgot that he was also our three-year old boy. Our stoic, funny, delightfully stubborn little man.
Which is why, when we left the therapist’s office that day, we were on a fluttering high—he had laughed. In a room with terrifying words nestled into the corners—Autism, Expressive Language Delay, Head Trauma—he had shifted the very vibrations with his infectious, klutzy laughter. It was a sound we had forgotten to listen for, a simple happiness we hadn’t realized had also slipped behind the gate.
And while I grew to hate the sign that hung in his preschool—Use Words, Not Hands—grew to hate the struggle of his own frustrated fists pinging the air, his tense mouth opening and closing soundlessly, and the home therapy sessions that weren’t enticing the words to return, I also started to grow into the quiet with him. I tucked it around us in the house, allowed the music of it into the car, and held his hand in place of instructions.
I joined him behind that gate, dedicated more hours outdoors, listening to the crows and woodpeckers, the fleeing traffic, the sound of leaves enchanting the fall breeze. I let him throw objects into the pond, romp around in the mud, and navigate uncertain terrain on his balance bike. I grew into the pulse and magic of his world, filled with unspeakable light. And at the same time, noticed that I had stopped feeling so alone.
Megan Merchant’s poems have most recently appeared in publications including Red Paint Hill, Rat’s Ass Review, Mothers Always Write, Crack the Spine and First Literary Review East. She is the author of Translucent, Sealed, (Dancing Girl Press, 2015), In the Rooms of a Tiny House ( ELJ Publications, October 2016), Gravel Ghosts (Glass Lyre Press, forthcoming) and a children’s book through Philomel Books.
An African elephant would have told a better story,
but I, being an amateur story-teller,
could only tell the parts where
the sea eases away from
the shore, treading with care
as a pair of nightingales dip into
the moonlit liquid to embroider their gold party frocks,
while the wings of night
finger through the knots of my story-telling,
my children curl and snicker
at my bent legs,
clicking their tongues in acquiescence
every now and then
when my recherché voice moves artlessly through
filled with color, mystery and splendid perils,
bold and bolder,
my children become my sidekicks
in this empire of saffron-red embroidery,
of heroic dance over the blue water,
then finally, of our escape from
a small, unnoticed inlet
where the briny scent leads us back out to sea,
even when straps of seaweed belt
to our bodies:
my children clasp tiny hands over
their laughing mouths,
while I, a mother,
slip into the narrative yarns of pink adolescence.
A Pushcart nominee, Lana Bella has work of poetry and fiction published and forthcoming with over 130 journals, including a chapbook with Crisis Chronicles Press (Spring 2016), Ann Arbor Review, Chiron Review, Coe Review, Literary Orphans, Pankhearst, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poetry Quarterly, QLRS (Singapore), Sein Und Werden (UK), White Rabbit (Chile) and elsewhere, among others. She divides her time between the US and the coastal town of Nha Trang, Vietnam, where she is a wife of a talking-wonder novelist, and a mom of two far-too-clever-frolicsome imps. You can find her at https://www.facebook.com/niaallanpoe.
It begins, as it usually does, with a text from my daughter. “Mom, I would like to…”
The request sounds reasonable. She wants to go to a party with a friend who is driving, but although the plan sounds innocuous, I ponder for a while, my fingers poised over the phone. My stomach has begun to churn, and I detect the familiar hum of anxiety along my spine. Life with a teenager has introduced a new layer of fear into my life, and my anxious brain produces constant updates to an imagined worst case scenario: What if she isn’t safe? What if she doesn’t make good choices?
Teens are like cliff divers ready to jump into the abyss confident in their ability to land safely. As a parent familiar with the shark infested waters of the real world, my first reaction is to say no.
“Hello,” she texts again while I consider my options.
My life is ruled by fearful “what ifs.” What if she gets into a car accident? What if someone brings drugs to the party? What if some boy doesn’t understand the word no?
I think about all the stories of parents who thought their kids were okay, only to discover hidden drug use, depression, or any number of crises that teens are so adept at covering under a surface of normalcy. I have read parents’ tragic accounts of troubled teens, trying to identify early signs of trouble. It’s futile: the kids appeared fine; they were good students from good homes with a healthy social life, just like my daughter. Judgmental strangers always wonder how the parents could fail to notice. How could they not know that their child was in danger?
I don’t want to be the parent who didn’t know, so I use my veto power. Saying no makes me feel better; I’m doing my job as a parent intent on keeping my daughter safe.
“No,” I reply, but I don’t hit send.
Saying no is easy, but it may be cowardly. I know that what I see as a cliff might be safe. The waters that I imagine filled with sharks and treacherous rocks might be a deep pool filled with warm water and rainbow colored fish. By not allowing my child to jump, I might deprive her of important experiences and opportunities to sharpen the skills that she’ll need as an adult.
I stop for a second to consider my daughter. She has been blessed with well-developed common sense and hasn’t given me any reason to believe that she is heading for trouble. The thought makes me want to knock on wood. Trusting a teenager whose brain is developing at breakneck speed seems stupid almost to the point of lunacy. On the other hand, she’ll be in college, a place bursting with difficult decisions, in a couple of years. Wouldn’t it be better to allow her to develop her independence before she leaves home? Shouldn’t she learn to avoid and fight sharks before she jumps?
I erase the word “no” from the screen and instead fire off a barrage of questions. “Who is going? How many will be in the car? Are the parents going to be at home? I have to call them.”
I imagine my daughter rolling her eyes as she replies.
All adults know that the teenage years are filled with potential risks. We may not even need to look any further than our own past. Perhaps we only barely escaped adolescence ourselves, emerging battle worn with injuries that still hurt. We know that while adolescence might be full of exciting opportunities, it is also a time when doors slam shut. We know that teens who, let’s face it, aren’t always equipped to estimate the consequences of their actions might decide to blow off that test, try that drug, or hop in that car.
Am I unreasonable? As a high school teacher, I’m only too familiar with helicopter parents who never allow their children any independence, thereby raising kids who are ill equipped to manage the real world. Am I one of them? How do I know where normal protection of my teen ends and crazy paranoid sheltering begins?
My daughter has given me all the information I need, but I still look for a reason to say no while anxiety surges through my body. I imagine getting that phone call late in the evening, an anonymous voice telling me that the worst has happened. What if something bad happens to her?
Taking a deep breath, I banish my fear and summon the remaining sliver of common sense. Based on everything I know, this party is okay. She’s driving with someone I know, and she’ll be around kids I’ve known since elementary school. If parenting teenagers is about picking your battles, this is not one I should fight.
“Come home on time,” I admonish. Then, I add: “Have fun!”
The burden of my anxiety is not hers to carry.
I hit send.
Daniele Loose is a freelance writer living in New England.
When women at fifty lay flat
on their bellies some will remember
the roundness that thrived
in the womb of their skin
where a fetus once swam;
now-hollowed figures where secrets
began and grew to a marvel beyond
heaven and stars. They’ll turn
to their side without need
to surrender to the unwieldy
bundle that pushed against bones
and stirred through the twilight;
a disquieted wonder until slumber
was lost to the waking of being.
From a steeple of hope through
a spindrift of prayers they’ll barely
recall a day without worry,
how they worshipped beginnings,
then bellowed goodbyes.
Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas is a seven-time Pushcart nominee and four-time Best of the Net nominee. She has authored several chapbooks along with her latest full-length collection of poems:Hasty Notes in No Particular Order newly released from Aldrich Press. She is the 2012 winner of the Red Ochre Press Chapbook competition for her manuscript Before I Go to Sleep and according to family lore she is a direct descendent of Robert Louis Stevenson. You can find her at www.clgrellaspoetry.com.