The lake was calm, except for our speedboat with you and your noisy brothers in tow. You requested more chips, then scoffed at my expected Eat-some-more-grapes-first reply.
“Is it time to swim yet?” you asked.
“We’re heading to the swimming hole now,” Daddy answered.
In the glare of late-day sun, I noticed something on the water ahead. Squinting, shielding my eyes, I called to your father to slow down.
“What is it? he asked.
“I can’t tell – some kind of birds.”
Closer, then, I made out the sleek black head and crosshatched feathers of a momma loon, and the outline of her baby close behind. The young chick, startled, dove beneath the surface.
“Stop, Honey,” I called to your father. “They’re threatened by us.”
“Where did the baby go?” you asked, concern in your voice.
Before I could answer, the momma loon, darting her head from side to side, called out.
It was a primal sound, a clear, powerful sound — a sound colored with panic and fear.
We, in the boat, fell silent, watching and waiting for what seemed like minutes for the baby to surface, as the loon’s high-pitched undulating cry of Come back to me, come back to me, fell around us.
When the chick popped back up above the bright water, the momma loon glided swiftly across the surface, as though propelled by some high-speed conveyor belt.
“She found him!” you cried, voice cracking with relief. You reached your small hand over to me, placing it on my bare knee. “She found her baby.”
When you were a toddler, I brought you to your favorite park, the one with the brightly painted merry-go-round and zipline slider.
As our friends arrived, we greeted them in the gravel parking lot. I hugged their momma and high-fived their toddler and stole a squeeze of a chunky baby thigh in a stroller.
When I turned back to you, you had vanished. My eyes scanned the playground, stopping for a second on each of your favorite places.
You were not on the swing.
You were not in the tunnel.
You were not on the merry-go-round or jumping to grab the handle of the zipline.
When I spotted your red hat and tie-dyed t-shirt, my heart quickened. You stood on the side of the busy street – the other side. You had crossed, on your own, without my hand to hold, without my eyes to dart side to side, protecting you from vehicles and bicycles and danger. Danger. Danger.
I called your name and ran to you, swiftly, abandoning my own logic and safety. When I reached you, I darted my arms beneath yours and scooped you up to my chest.
Cars and trucks passed by on the street as I held you tight, tears dripping from my chin onto the brim of your red baseball hat.
My dear friend tried for years to become a momma.
She is a successful career woman with a lovely home on a lake and a sweet, caring husband who is her perfect match. But her deep desire to share life with a little one like you was unfulfilled.
She tried all the things. When you are older, I will tell you about them, the wonders of reproductive science, the miracles capable of being born in a petri dish in a bright, clean laboratory.
But none of the methods worked.
She cried deep, primal cries from the depths of her being when learned she was still not pregnant, still separate from her dream.
“Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a mother,” she wept, choking on the words. “Maybe God has some other plan for me.”
When you were in my belly, I’d place my hands on the round curve of my abdomen each night after supper.
You’d straighten your legs, pushing your feet against my spine, pressing the curve of your backside into my hands. I’d pat you firmly, then rub gentle circles over both of our bodies.
Eventually, distracted or tired, I’d stop our little game, then you’d straighten your legs, pushing again and again against my belly in search of my firm hands.
Come back to me.
Last week, I started a new part-time job. You weren’t terribly interested in this news until the second day in a row I was gone from the house.
“And let me guess,” you said, a hint of bitterness in your voice, “now you have to leave the house every single day.”
I reached out, pulled you close.
“Not every day, Sweetie,” I whispered, placing my hands on the strong curve of your back. “I promise we have lots of days together.”
Late last night, as I turned onto the last winding stretch of the road home, I caught the silhouette of something in my lane.
Braking, I approached slowly, making out not one, but three shapes.
A large Whitetail doe stood in the center of the blacktop directly between the guardrails, two spotted fawns behind her.
I’ve seen deer in this spot dozens of times. They come up from the pond and cross over to the stream, bounding easily over the guardrail when startled by a dog-walker or a vehicle.
But this time, the doe stood frozen in the road. She looked at her babies, knowing they were too small to clear the rail, then back into my headlights.
I rolled down my window and spoke gently to her from only a few feet away.
“Go ahead, Momma – lead your babies. I’ll wait right here.”
A few seconds passed, then she started toward me, fawns following behind her. They rounded the edge of the guardrail into the tall foliage. I heard the swoosh and crack of brush as they disappeared.
I let off the brake and crept ahead slowly, glancing toward the stream.
The fawns were gone from sight, but the doe’s strong neck and head rose above the guardrail, looking right back at me. The moon was bright — her dark eyes caught its light.
For a few seconds, we held one another’s gentle gaze before I accelerated around the corner to see your face and the faces of your brothers appear in the dim light of the living room window.
My dear friend visited me this spring. Beneath the glow of string lights in the porch one evening, we caught up about careers and travels and children.
This time, when I filled her in about you and your brothers, there was no quiet undertone of sadness, no need for me to hold back in an effort to protect her tender, hopeful mother-heart.
This time, as we shared about our dreams, she cradled hers right there in her arms – a handsome newborn son.
Her whole being seemed to have changed with the birth of her child. She has always been a beautiful woman, but she was downright stunning that evening. She embodied this commanding new presence of tenderness and tenacity — power and peace. I could hardly look away from her.
“I just can’t believe he’s here,” I said, as she placed his warm body into my own arms. “I have so much love for him –I feel like he’s partly mine. Like I had some part in praying him into existence.”
With quivering cheeks and green eyes shining with tears, she smiled at me. “You did.”
“How old were you when you and Daddy got married?” you asked as I folded a turquoise towel at the dining room table.
“Twenty-four,” I answered.
“Is that when you stopped living in Grandma’s house?”
“I stopped living in Grandma’s house when I was eighteen and went to college to learn to be a teacher.”
“I’m going to live here with you forever,” you said, turning back to your Lego fleet.
“You can stay with me as long as you’d like,” I replied, glancing up at you, light from the bay window dusting your suntanned neck.
Common Loons stay with their young for twelve weeks before the fall migration– before leaving them behind with the other juvenile loons to find their own path south.
Whitetail Deer stay with their young for the first one to two years before sending them into the winter woods on their own.
There will come a day when you will leave me. Other Things will call to you. Cities. Oceans. Universities. Girls.
Our family, our home, our backyard with its quiet river, the things that are Everything to you now will someday be Not Enough.
You will need more than This Place.
You will need more than your mother, and I will have to release you from both the watch of my eyes and the touch of my hands.
But know this, my child – when the day comes that we are separated, I will never release you from my heart. That primal, maternal being within me will always be watching for you, waiting for you.
I will still feel the weight of you in my belly, the push of your body against mine. I will still scan for your red baseball hat. I will still feel the curve of your back beneath my hands.
And in the quiet moments of your life, if you listen, you may hear my cry – powerful, protective and a bit terrified, I’m sure – calling on the wind.
Come back to me.
Image credit: Fishing for the New Chicks via Flickr. (Creative Commons license)
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