Sometimes just to escape the house, my then-young sons and I spent a lot of time in the car. They engaged me with their words, their findings. “Bozozo” for bulldozer. Dry leaves “ice skating” across the road. It filled me with joy; I am a writer, after all.
Some days, they’d fight in the back seat. If we were lucky this happened on the days I was fed, well rested, not pressed for time, not angry at the world. “Every. Body. Ululate,” I’d shout. The three of us would break into a squawking trill that trailed into laughter.
On darker days, they might scream and fight. My patience worn thin, I’d yell back, angry. Their father was home in bed. Daddy played a late-night gig. Daddy doesn’t feel well. Again. Again. Again. No ululating. No laughter. I’d turn up the radio until an aggressive wall of sound vibrated against my chest. “Too loud!” They’d cry. I am a terrible mommy.
Back at home, there was an underlying bleakness, an unspoken pain that was not recognized and therefore not acknowledged and which would not resolve itself for nearly 20 years. But it was there, spreading and clinging steadfast as mold on damp walls.
Can it be that it was written this way? That the ending was always out there, that we had only to reach it? A year ago, eight years after we divorced, my sons’ father succumbed to depression and alcoholism and took his own life. Despite his struggles, he had been as engaged a father as he could be.
My sons and I are new to grief — and a grief of such magnitude that I wake and think we will never reach the fresh air and blue sky that people say is out there. But I can only guess this of my sons, already 18 and 21, who talk to me in brief sentences as we gaze out the car window. I am now the passenger as we travel.
How can I help them?
My ex and I had created these two lives from a stewpot of genetics, family history, culture. He gave them music. I gave them words. We sprinkled in our own ways of nurturing, slathered on love, tried new spices. We did our best to remove the burnt edges, the gristle and bone that sometimes surfaced.
I cannot replace what will be missed. I don’t even know what will be missed. I need to expand the dimensions of motherhood, but I can’t find the borders. And the boys will leave me, anyway. They are about to fledge, their legs dangling over the nest’s edge. But are the ready? Am I? And their father, who I loved once, and who I promised to love until death do us part, and I did, in a way, because when you marry and have children you are bound forever. What part of me and of motherhood can I stretch to cover what their father might have given them?
I am a single mother–and not by choice.
I fear this: That the way in which he ended his life makes it a possibility. For me. For my sons. Better minds than mine have studied whether suicide is genetic. Depression and other mental health issues are risk factors for suicide. A family history of suicide is a risk factor for suicide.
Millions of words have been written about motherhood: It’s an honor and a privilege, unselfish, a blessing, humanizing, surprising–as American as apple pie. But it is not a shield against the bad things. And how can motherhood fight that which already exists inside us? I can offer no true protection.
My best effort is to direct my sons toward a healthy path. To listen. To encourage them to seek professional help. To allow me to drive sometimes. To ululate loudly when the pressure is too much.
About the Author
Stacey Freed is a freelance writer for national trade and consumer publications. She’s won a Neal Award for specialized journalism and several awards from the American Society of Business Publications Editors. She holds an MFA from George Mason University. She will be reading her essay, “Laid to Rest,” at this year’s Listen To Your Mother/Rochester program, and her essay, “Tourist No More,” will appear in She Can Find Her Way: Women Travelers at Their Best. She has recently finished a draft of a novel she hopes will one day see the light of publication. When she’s not writing, she loves to hike, read or bake bread. Her two sons make her smile every day.