Friday, May 8, 2015

It’s Hard to Tell a Hug

My father was a storyteller. It was his everyday way of communicating. I discovered that I too am a storyteller. I have retold his stories and told my own stories about him. I told so many stories about my father—and then it dawned on me. I wasn’t telling any stories about my mother. I began to feel bad. Surely, she deserved to have stories told about her. I thought about it. Why wasn’t I telling any stories about my mother? I didn’t have any stories about my mother! My father was a storyteller, so it was easy to tell his stories, but my mother was not. And while it’s easy to tell a story, it’s hard to tell a hug.
~ ~ ~
When I was four years old my mother asked me for the very first time if I wanted to stay home alone. My three older sisters were at school; my father was at work; I was home with my mother, and when she had to run an errand, I had to go with her. That was just the way it was. But here, for the first time, she said, “I have to go shopping. Would you like to stay home or do you want to come with me?” I used to get a headache going shopping—what am I saying, I still get headaches going shopping—so I said, “I’ll stay home.”

As soon as she left, I wanted my mommy. I thought, Maybe she’ll come back for her keys. She was always forgetting her keys. So I put on my coat—she had bought me this dressy, full-length coat. And it was itchy wool that I hated. It was a black and white weave with a matching hat. I pulled that hat over my head and the earflaps over my ears and I tied that itchy wool string under my chin—I hated that hat more than the coat—and I stood there in the middle of the living room waiting for my mommy.

When finally she returned, she opened the door, saw me standing there in the middle of the living room with my hat and coat on, and instinctively, intuitively, she knew exactly what was going on. She quickly leaned down to put her packages on the floor, rushed over to me, picked me up in her arms and hugged me, and I was … relieved. And I cried and she cried and her whole body shook. She was not a slight woman and when she held you and her body shook, you really knew it. After some time I regained my composure, and my mother regained her composure, so she put me back down and we went about doing our little-boy-and-mommy things.
~ ~ ~
When I was twelve years old my Boy Scout troop was going to summer camp for the first time. We went camping once a month religiously all through the school year but we had never gone camping during the summer, much less for two whole weeks. When I heard this in the beginning of the year, I really didn’t believe it. I thought sure that, by the time the summer rolled around, for one reason or another this deal would have dissolved. To say that it was beyond my wildest dreams would suggest too high a degree of probability. It was just inconceivable, other­worldly, and I didn’t take it seriously until that day my parents drove me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal with my foot locker and my backpack and I joined my fellow scouts on the bus to the Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camp in the Catskill Mountains. I didn’t think about home once until the weekend in the middle of our two-week stay, when the camp had “Parents Day.”

Our campsite was set along the sloping ground of a wooded hillside. At the top of the hill was the dirt roadway; a footpath led down the hill through the woods until you came to a level area. Here was a clearing with a huge boulder, our campfire circle, and also the main cabin, where the scoutmaster stayed. Then another long slope until the campsite leveled off again. That’s where the lean-tos were, where all the boys stayed. We were down there, all the boys, expecting our parents to show up before long, and we were neatening things up, shaking the leaves out of our sleeping bags, trying to make it look like we were taking care of the place, when I heard this voice bellowing from the top of the hill.


And there was my mother, a large woman, impatient to see me, bounding down that hill. I strode up the hill to meet her and we met in that campfire area in the center of the camp. She put her arms around me and hugged me and—at this point I was tall enough to see eye-to-eye with her—I hugged her back. She sobbed and her whole body shook. And all I thought was, The whole camp is looking at us. But I wasn’t going to let anyone know I was embarrassed. I wasn’t going to push her away. I was … tolerant. I stood there hugging her until she regained her composure and then we went about doing our Boy-Scout-Camp-Parents-Day things.
~ ~ ~
I was seventeen when I went off to college, and I never did move back to my parents’ house, nor did I come home to visit all that often—but when I did, I would come through that front door and, right there in the foyer, my mother would be waiting for me and she would take me in her arms and she would hug me. I would bend down a little to put my head next to hers and she would sob, keeping herself from crying out loud and her whole body would shake and we would hug each other, and I was … understanding. And then after a time she would regain her composure and we would go about doing our young-adult-son-and-mother things.

That was the way it was. It was like a ritual every time. No, that’s not right, it’s not right to call it a ritual. There was nothing prescribed or predetermined. It was the real thing. It was genuine each and every time.
~ ~ ~
I was 29 the beginning of that summer when my wife and I were going to get married. The wedding was scheduled for Labor Day. It would be in our house, so we spent the whole summer getting things ready—painting, renovating, buying new furniture, ordering wedding invitations, finding a caterer.

It was an evening in July when I got a call from my sister, Selma.

She had just come from the doctor with my mother. My mother hadn’t been feeling well the past many months, maybe a year or more. She was tired. She had what she described as a “low-grade fever.” She would go to the doctor, the same doctor she’d been seeing for decades, and he would say, “Annette, you’re getting older, you’re in your late sixties. You just have to take it easy. Take some aspirin. Rest. That’s the way it is, Annette.”

On this particular visit, the old doctor was out of town so she saw one of the new doctors, a younger man. He examined her, looked through her files, noted her history of breast cancer, and immediately ordered some tests. My sister Selma had just come back from visiting the doctor where he gave her the report. My mother had colon cancer and it had advanced into her kidneys and liver and the prospects were not good.

I listened without responding, the phone pressed hard to my ear. Selma had many details to relay and, hearing my silence, just continued. She said, “I asked the doctor if she would be able to make it to my little brother’s wedding. My little brother, the youngest of the family, the baby, the only boy.”

The doctor asked, “When is the wedding?”

Selma told him, “September.”

He replied, “Early September, or late?”
~ ~ ~
My mother did make it to the wedding. She was in good spirits. The members of our two families gathered at our house and moved about from room to room to meet each other, talking and eating, while my mother greeted everyone as she sat there on our couch—our new, white, Haitian-cotton couch, the kind with that coarse cotton weave—in front of the windows in the living room. I can still see her sitting there, beaming at me.

After the wedding, just about every weekend, my wife and I made the three-hour trip from Albany to Maspeth, in the western end of Queens, to visit my parents, to see my mother, to help out, all the way until the next spring. She died on April fourth.
~ ~ ~
Two-and-a-half years later, we were about to have our first baby. We had firmly decided, if it was a girl, to name her Anna, after my mother Annette. But if it was a boy, we were unsure. We might name him Benjamin, after my uncle, or Paul, after my wife’s uncle, both of whom had recently died. We had not decided, even right up until my wife was in labor. In the maternity ward of the hospital one of the interns asked, “And if it’s a boy, what will you call him?”

She said, “Benjamin Paul.”

That was the first I heard it. He was a big boy, nine pounds, six ounces, Benjamin Paul.

He was born in December, so he was just five months old the following spring when Mother’s Day came around. Of course, for me, Mother’s Day was not the same, and never to be again. I wondered, after all, if Mother’s Day had been invented for the mother, or if it had been invented for the child.

This Mother’s Day was special, my wife’s first Mother’s Day and Ben’s too. My wife was enjoying the day—out of the house for a while—and I stayed home with Ben. We were in the living room, warmed by the sun streaming in the front windows, sitting on that white Haitian-cotton couch. Well, Baby Ben was pretty good at spitting up and I suppose that white couch had by that point acquired a somewhat mottled appearance.

He started to cry, so I picked him up and put him on my shoulder, with a diaper there to absorb the spit-up that I knew would be forthcoming. I held him there and patted his little back. He was quieting down and I was thinking. Here’s this little baby who’s completely dependent on me. He can’t take care of himself. Why, he can’t even lift up his own head! Yet I love him.

He fell asleep, his hefty little body a relaxed weight slumped over mine, his head heavy on my drool-soaked shoulder, while I tried to come up with an idea for what he should give his mother on this special day. But my thoughts returned to this person-to-be. He’s incapable of linguistic expression, completely helpless, taking everything and giving nothing. And yet I love him completely, without reservation, without qualification; complete, unadulterated, unmitigated, unalterable love. I love him more than the sun loves to shine.

And in that moment, I realized how my mother felt about me. For the first time I knew what that hug meant. I cried out loud, “I didn’t understand! I didn’t understand, Mom! I’m sorry.”

So Benjamin, in his wisdom, prepared a Mother’s Day card. On the front cover it said, “My First Mother’s Day,” and inside:
For the times when I am waking but you are still asleep
And the times when I am cranky with my diapers in a heap
For all these times I won’t recall, I’m just a baby boy
Life is simple, so direct, and because of you it’s joy.
I love you Mommy, in my baby-boy way, and still, when I will grow
I’ll love you Mommy yet someday in ways I don’t yet know.
And it was signed:
To Mother on Mother’s Day
Love, Benjamin, age five months
~ ~ ~
Ben now lives in Brooklyn and is a computer specialist for an insurance company. Sam, his younger brother, works as a paramedic in Amsterdam, New York, while he completes his bachelor’s degree. Their little sister, Anna—named after my mother Annette and born April fourth, the same date my mother died—graduated from college and will begin her fellowship this fall at an environmental education institute. I don’t see these children very often, but when I do, you can be sure I give each of them a hug. I wish there was some way I could just tell you what that hug really means. But it’s like I said at the start. It’s easy to tell a story, but it’s hard to tell a hug.

As published in Stories We Tell: Tales from the Story Circle of the Capital District, This Too Shall Pass Press, Albany, New York, 2014.