Appendicitis? Is he touching his side? The virus? Growing pains? Leg cramps? I had terrible leg cramps when I was his age. Did he see something on his iPad that scared him or made him sad? Is it the ghost that lives in the guest room? What is he feeling? Is he intuiting something? Is this a delayed reaction to something that happened today? Is he worried about his brother? Is he thinking about me getting mad at him for splashing so much water out of the tub during his bath tonight? It took two towels to mop it all up and he thought it was funny, or he at least laughed when I got angry. Hell, I don’t know. All I can do is pray, I guess.
Please God, please God, please God, please God, please God, let him be OK. Let him settle down and not feel pain. Let me know that he will be OK. Please bring peace and comfort to him. Please. Please.
I know we have to hurt sometimes. I know we all get sick, I know we all have to cry. But not having anyone understand our pain of whatever kind must create a whole separate sort of agony. Does his experience, whatever it is, ever really register as real if he cannot have someone know what it is they’re witnessing happen to or within him? I am his witness, yet I don’t know what I’m supposed to reflect back to him. I can acknowledge that he’s upset, but I don’t know how to specifically validate whatever it is that’s causing the trouble. I don’t know what I’m supposed to have empathy for other than a generalized sense of his pain. That’s agonizing for me, and it must be crazy-making for him. How could he help but feel trapped inside his discomfort? This part of experience — the part where another person understands and acknowledges what you’re feeling — is something I can’t give him.
Oh, my heart.
Oh, his heart.
I lay there beside him, rubbing his back when he’d let me, telling him it would be all right, prayers and questions squirming against one another in my brain. He started to settle down. He inched closer to me and threw his arm over my upper abdomen, which is a bit out of character for him. He is physically affectionate but in a mostly fleeting manner. He hugs freely, but for only as long as it is his idea. His arm was flung over me and he nestled his head in the hollowed-out spot between my clavicle and breast.
I thought I’d start crying again, but held it in and concentrated on holding him. His breathing evened out, his body loosened and he slipped under the first veil of sleep, turning over as he felt me move my shoulder out from under him. He finally released one deep, extended sigh. I stood up from the bed and let go a sigh of my own, pulled the covers up around his shoulders and left his room.
I slipped back under my covers, worried and shaken. I thought about mind reading — how much of it we do as human beings, how much communication is unspoken and how much isn’t. I can generally know, because my son cries, that he is upset or that something is wrong. I can’t specifically know, because I don’t understand his language. As much as we work on communication, the subtleties that can never be relayed from touching a photograph with a label on an iPad are endless. Does he even know how much I love him when I can’t give him all that he needs or wants? Does he think I’m just ignoring him? I said another prayer that he doesn’t, that he would remain asleep, and that peace would cover us.
This essay was adapted from “I Dream He Talks to Me” by Allison Moorer, copyright © 2021 by Allison Moorer. Used with permission of Hachette Book Group, Inc.