I think all caregivers are given the knowledge that their children are going to break their hearts. It is not spelled out in any new-age parenting book, not even whispered by aunts at a party. It’s just known.
While all caregivers have this information, I think of my own mother as I write this. I was the angelic parasite that spent nine months feeding on my mother, and I will continue to tax every ounce of her strength ’till death do us part. So is the tale of children. For every nine times the little devils yell, “I hate you”, or embarrass you, or any other form of torment, there will be something that makes it all better. All it takes is a macaroni art-piece, a head cradled on a shoulder, or a small innocent smile to make it all worthwhile.
A caregiver’s heart probably breaks twice a day, maybe just once for the more experienced or those with lower standards. But there are a few cases that stand apart, instances in which their heart is not broken but shattered. I remember this time quite clearly.
The time I shattered my mother’s heart:
It was summer, the kind of late August day that dulls your mind. Minutes pass by concentrating on the progression of sweat trickling down your back. Even at high noon the day is quiet, the cars moving in slow motion.
As an eight-year-old yet to appreciate the beauty in tanning, who had already gone through my stack of library books, these days suffocated me. I melted on the couch, shoulders grazing the floor. My eyes were the only part of me moving, they traced my moma’s movements. She darted this way and that, her hands busy, her mind busy, she never stopped moving. I saw the Salvadoran flag blowing in the wake of her constant movements. Billowing proudly it screamed its presence, screamed “different!”
Just eight years old, and I recognized that my mom was different. I tiptoed the line between defending her and aggravating those differences. When a passing car yelled, “Go home wetbacks” at us, it was my hand that reached over and pushed down on the horn, my eyes that shot lasers at the disappearing truck. But the flipside of defending was pushing, pushing with all my might—the dance of the first generation. “But all my friends stay up this late, yes this show is appropriate…” She usually abided by my wishes, maybe because my desires reflected her successful assimilation. But probably because, although I was gifted her coloring and features, I had adopted the quick-lipped stubbornness of my surroundings. My soil was fertilized with independence.
Tucked into my understanding of our balance, was the whisper of what I did not know. These whispers were long, they filled the night as she huddled over calling cards her Spanish creeping in the shadows, words highlighted by the moonlight, “La guerra, desaparecido…” Her secret past kept me guessing at the things I didn’t understand, couldn’t fathom.
Her gaze fell on my upside-down figure. Her mouth moved, too quickly, words spilling out hanging in the air around me. They sat there, sinking onto my body pushing me deeper into the couch. Her eyes beseeched me, but my tongue was heavy, my eyes defiant, I wasn’t gonna move. Please she said, her hands grew busy in the silence, filling the void with movements, straightening, cleaning—everything in super speed. Didn’t she know the world was slow today? She had to go pick up my brother, school starts earlier for older kids. I had no desire to sit in the hot car, my thighs sticking to the seat—not today. Today I would sit on the couch, sweat streaming like a river down my back, today I would not move. She continued to move, a fly buzzing around the room, why would it not leave me in peace? Leave me to melt. Sage, please, she said from the other room and still I remained silent, noncompliant, unmoving. We need to leave in five, we’ll get ice cream on the way, please we just need to go.
Still I remained. My actions cloaked in the red, white, and blue of my flag. My confidence boosted with my ability to say no, to shut her down. It was no longer about moving, but winning.
She came closer, stood over me. Her words slipping with their desperation, please she begged. It would only take a second. Here we were at the front lines, a border separated us, we stood on opposite sides of a deep ravine of beliefs, ideas, experiences. Standing at only 4’11”, her figure cast a pitiful shadow, hunched and small under my gaze. Her flag hung limply in her shadow. Sprawled on the couch, I was soaring, I said, no.
She stepped back, taking the defeat. She said she would return soon, that I was to stay inside, that she would be back very soon.
With the murmur of the engine growing more faint, propelled forward by my win, I came alive. The world was no longer trudging along, in fact everything was moving quickly. What could I do with this freedom, this special parcel of time? It hit me, wouldn’t it be fun to hide in the back yard, to be missing when she returned? I sprung into action, running down the stairs and into the safety of the backyard. I crawled in next to the largest Sage bush, tucking myself in its embrace. Giggling under the leaves. This was fun because my mom had felt people disappear before. My mom knew what it was like to come home and have someone never return. In her country those were acts of war, but this was fun! Because I would make myself found.
I delighted myself by imagining her expression when I made myself found, oh the relief! She would cherish me ever more knowing that I am not missing, I am here. I watched the ants climb diligently around me, one after the other. The air no longer felt light; the sun was being pulled down, shadows throwing themselves dramatically across the lawn. My river of sweat ran dry, and I shivered in my new space. Noises picked up around me as everywhere living things prepared for the night, the family next door came home and the sounds of cooking began. The birds returned to their nest, the ants kept marching as I sat huddled, waiting.
Until suddenly, a wild animal screamed into the night. A sound so wrought with terror I couldn’t understand it. It pierced the air, sending the ants running, the birds echoing its scream. And in the echo I finally understood its cry. It was crying my name. The foreign noise came closer and in my fear I tucked myself further into the brush. Shrinking back in terror I watched through the leaves as the thing, my moma—a blur of embroidery—searched, screaming for me.
The streams started before I processed they were my tears. The guttural noises of my own creation rose above me, a white flag signaling my defeat. The animal, my moma, saw its feeble wave; she turned away from my form and slowly walked back up to the house.
With her went the light of the day. The family next door buckled down for dinner. The birds cuddled their young, bats appeared flying low as I howled my distress to the sliver of the appearing moon.
Stars appeared, they lit my way as I dragged my heaving soul back up to the house. Inside it was light, the clear smell of all-natural cleaning products heavy in the air. She stood with her back to me, broom in hand. Everything was sparkling, all evidence of the day disinfected and straightened under her steady hand. Mothballs, dirt, tears, a hair-tie, and shards of her heart lay in a pile at her feet, ready to be swept into the trash. Collected by the trash truck the following day.
How do you love someone after you shatter their heart? How do they love you?