Not that you were any good at it before or even knew how to be alone really. But now, it’s a feeling you don’t understand. You don’t know what to do with your hands. Your body and mind feel foreign to you as though you are alone but with a stranger at the same time. You’ve become another person when you are not pushing a stroller or holding your son’s hand or thinking about the next thing that you will do with/for/because of him. You are someone you have yet to know. A you who is always alone and has no idea how to be this way anymore.
You feel this crossing the South Street Bridge back into Center City from campus. When the wind blows hard against you and you miss your son so much that everything seems to hurt. He just started at his new school that morning. He said good-bye to you without tears, kissed you, and went off with new teachers, not happy about it, but resigned that this is the way it had to be. You held yourself back from calling to check in on him all day. You focused on schoolwork and social media, on distractions that kept you from realizing you were alone. But on the bridge with the wind, you feel like you can’t reach out to anyone and you have no one reaching for you. You don’t know what to do with this feeling. It reminds you that you depend on your son’s reaching for you just as much if not more than he depends on reaching you.
At a café on the corner of a street you’ve walked with him so many times before, you sit on a small metal chair and drink a hot drip coffee, though it’s 80 degrees and the mosquitos are digging into your upper arm. You read poems and try to write and try not to think about the fact that you should be working for another hour before getting him. You keep looking at his photo on your phone, the one that his teachers must have taken that morning on the playground where he is half smiling and half squinting at the sun. The one that is now his icon in the app you can use to see what the kids in his classroom are doing. Hand washing, diaper change, circle time, playground, sleep, eat, and more of the same. And this brings you comfort. And this makes you want to hold him and feel his curls against your lips and his small mouth saying “Mama” against your skin.
And finally, when you arrive to get him—when every second that had brought you closer to this moment made you feel less alone and more like yourself—you scan the playground for him and he is no where. And at that moment, for just a moment, maybe even a second, you feel like you’ve died, like every you—the alone you and the mother you—are both gone. You are left with only your hands, shaking. And one of the teachers must see your panic or feel it even because it is that strong, and she points behind the slide, where your not even two year old son is smiling and surrounded by three older girls. He sees you are there and for the first time, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much to him. He waves and turns away. You call him, and he runs to hug you, but the embrace is as short as the instant of fear earlier, he instantly runs and hugs his teacher. He hugs all of them, every teacher on the playground, before leaving with you. They tell you he did great, he didn’t cry at all. They tell you it was as though he’d been coming here all along and they wish more kids were like him. And you feel so whole and so afraid and so alone, even while he is in your arms. You know they grow up too fast, you’d been warned so many times. And you know too, that his lessening dependence on you is a good thing, but you can’t help feeling nostalgic for those moments—short and ephemeral like all the fragments of motherhood—when you were his entire world, and together, you would never be alone.
As you are leaving—with him clinging to you now and saying “Mama, I do do,” his way of saying I love you in Russian—he blows kisses to everyone he passes on your way out. And one of the teachers from another classroom stops and says, “Oh, that’s that sweet baby who’s been blowin’ me kisses all day.” And her words linger in your mouth like taffy, sticky and almost too sweet to bear. “sweet baby” she calls him, your sweet baby who calls himself “big boy” all night long and blows kisses and gives hugs and shares his love so indiscriminately and beautifully, you wish the hateful world around could learn from him. Your “sweet baby,” whose head against your chest reminds you that you are never really alone while the growing “big boy” urges you to discover a you who knows how to walk alone across the bridge and drink in the wind—the way as a baby, he’d open his mouth wide and inhale deep to take in every breath this world exhales, alone and with you all at once.