Dear son of mine, this morning, you couldn’t stop calling my name.
You wanted yogurt. When I told you we were out of it, you still wanted yogurt. When I told you again that we had none, you wanted it even more. When I offered you oatmeal instead, you threw yourself on the floor. You are that age. And that’s perfectly okay.
“Mama” often sounds sugary sweet coming from your heart-shaped mouth, like maple syrup that makes my heart a goopy mess. Other times, it sounds shrill and sharp, like a blow-horn in my face.
“Mama” means, “I need something,” which often means, “I want something.” And that’s what mothers are for. But sometimes, being needed and wanted around the clock frays my tired nerves. Exasperated breaths escape my mouth, steam emanates from my ears; I swore I’d never be short-tempered.
“We HAVE. NO. YOGURT!” I snap.
“Mu – MUUUHHH!” you wail, writhing on the floor.
I feel a bit like crying, too. The first time you called me Mama, I did cry. I smiled and wept quiet, big tears into your spongy, scrumptious cheek, the salt mixing in with your sugar. Later that night, I bragged to your dad that your new favorite word was “Mama” — you had been saying “Dada” for months.
Even later that night as I laid next to your warm, sleeping body, your buttercream breath blowing lightly in my face, I thought about being in college, freshly bereaved from the loss of my mother. For 18 years, saying “Mom” was as built-in to my days as my legs were attached to my body. “Mom” was bright and easy to say, like the morning sun seeping in through my blinds, as simple and predictable as my mother’s wakeup call every weekday at seven:
“Time to get up, Em! This is your last warning; you are GOING to be late for school.”
“Ughhhhh, OKAY MOM, I heard you the first time!”
Underneath the angst and frustration, an undercurrent of love so natural and sure as water lapping up on shore. Beneath the ripples, a steady stream of complex adoration, thick gratitude, a mutual understanding between mother and daughter, free-flowing and deep, longstanding and strong. Largely unspoken because it just was. We just were.
After I lost her, the word “mom” all but vanished from my vocabulary. Saying it was like speaking another language, its meaning foreign and impossible to translate. It sounded odd emerging from my lips, uttered in almost a whisper, yet blaring with shame and despondency. Talking about my mom when I could no longer talk to her felt awkward and false, like turning her dynamic soul into an abstract idea. Plus, no one knew what to say, least of all me. I avoided mentioning her.
“Where do your parents live?” new friends would ask.
“My family’s in New England,” I’d reply.
Other times, I blurted out, “My mom died” at inopportune times to people I barely knew, because I couldn’t stomach that she was disappearing into the shuffle of a world that kept on keeping on, leaving her behind with each new sunrise and sunset.
The word “mom” soon became as elusive to me as my mother herself. I realized this word would never feel like mine again. It would never belong to me again, or hold the power it used to — of making life make sense. “Mom” and all it symbolized had always tethered me to a reality that was solid and good, even when I couldn’t see it.
What I didn’t know then is that 8 years later, my new name would be “Mama.” My sole purpose would be to make your life solid and good, my son — to make your world make sense, to keep you safe and secure. I’ve never had a job like this, and yet, it feels as natural and sure as water lapping up on shore, and as scary as a riptide. My adoration for you is overwhelming, my gratitude for you thick. Already, we have a mutual understanding, largely spoken in Toddlerese.
Sometimes you call me mom just because — because you love me and I love you, and it’s easy and comfortable, like the morning sun seeping in through the blinds when you wake me up with that goofy, half-asleep grin. Many times, you call me mom when you need or want something, and that’s the way it should be. You need and want your mom, and in a sense, you always will, even when you’re an adult and you perhaps have kids of your own, calling you, “DA—DAAAAAA!”
I cherish being needed even when I forget to show it. I hold the title “Mom” more proudly than I can express. Even when you’re giving me gray hairs, you are giving me the greatest gift — to be for you what my mom was to me, the first eyes through which you see yourself and the world, the first arms to cradle and console you. It’s the greatest privilege possible to provide the primal and steady care that will carry you through this crazy life.
While I can’t promise that I’ll always remember to stock the fridge with yogurt, I can promise that I will always be here for you. Even when I have to go, like my mother did, my roots will remain like a tree planted in the soil all my absolute love and comfort radiating from the ground at your feet and beating like a drum in your heart.
Once your “Mama,” always your mother, forever yours.