Mary Mandeville: Blooming is Just a Promise

There’s something beyond flesh and blood, some stardust that binds us. I don’t pretend to know how it works. But I have an idea that Brandon’s meant to be my son. And maybe not just for his sake. I feel it in my bones as I think it, a little shiver snakes across my skin.

My car’s red nose leads the way. It sniffs out the park the same way the big black dog beside me in the passenger seat does, his lunk of a head hanging out the partially open window, ears flapping and nostrils twitching. His mouth is open, tongue hanging, eyes bright. A musty-sweet scent from the cottonwoods that line the road wafts into the car. The arch of my back softens and widens against the seatback and my breath sinks deeper into my abdomen; I’m smiling right down to my belly.

I need a daily trip to the river as much or more than my energetic dog or my hyper-active eight-year-old son who sits behind me. These pilgrimages into the natural world have replaced the daily Mass I attended as a child. There, I’d pull open the massive oak door, dip a hand into a marble holy water font, bless myself – in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost – genuflect, and slip into a pew. For about an hour, I’d try to locate God through Latin prayers and smoky incense, through the echoes of the pipe organ and the small flat wafer of Holy Communion a priest would set on my tongue.

Walking along sandy trails on the northwestern edge of Portland, where the Willamette River flows into the Columbia is a new kind of church. I find respite from the stresses of my grown-up everyday – the demands of my office, stacks of bills, communication glitches between my partner Kim and me, the confusing, and often disturbing, behavior of our recently adopted son. In the call of an osprey or the dance of sunlight on the leaves of the gray-trunked black cottonwoods that reach high into the blue sky, in the long broad view across the Columbia as it flows to the ocean, I find something I’ve been searching for since I was a girl. I don’t know; maybe it’s god.

A jolt to my lumbar spine undoes my budding softness. Behind me, in a booster seat, sits my stranger of a son. He’s just kicked my seat. Again. Though he’s lived with Kim and I for over a year, since we adopted him just before his seventh birthday, he’s a mystery. Quiet and moody and dark. I put up with things I might not otherwise, because of his first years in and out of foster care where who knows what happened to him, and what didn’t.

He doesn’t talk much. When he first moved in, he let us read him bedtime stories but now he’s in a phase where he won’t let me or Kim read him anything.

“Too many words,” he grumbles.

We can only look at picture books. His preference is an oversized book of prehistoric creatures. His favorites are the enormous bugs of the Carboniferous period in the Paleozoic Era, followed by the early reptiles of the Triassic and Jurassic Periods of the Mesozoic Era. Each night we count giant dragonflies and massive cockroaches, we count ichthyosaurs and therapsids and early dinosaurs like coelophysis. Though these are words, he likes saying them – ick-thee-o-sores and see-low-fi-sis.

Then we move on to the familiar dinosaurs of the Jurassic Period – Triceratops, Brachiosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Velociraptor. Enormous insects and terrifying sharp-toothed reptiles are easier to talk about than people and feelings and why he kicks my seat over and over or cuts up his clothes or whacks down all the tulips and daffodils with a stick and says he didn’t.

“Brandon!” My tone is sharp enough to alarm my dog, who pulls his head into the car and flattens his ears against his head. I take a deep breath, calm myself once again. The kicking of my seat is annoying as hell. It’s also only kicking the seat.

“Could you please stop kicking? It hurts my back and distracts me from driving. I want us all to be safe.” I’m always explaining.

Whizzing past, branches filled with fresh new leaves wave to us from the single row of trees lining both sides of the road. These black cottonwoods are Pacific Northwest natives, well suited for riparian areas along river’s edge we’re heading toward. Their wide shallow root systems stabilize riverbanks, slow erosion, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. Cottonwoods don’t naturally grow in straight lines along roadsides. The same shallow root system that shores up a riverbank leaves these planted trees weak and easily damaged in winter. The damage tends to manifest later, after leaves and new growth have weighted the crowns. A storm that comes when they’ve begun to bloom can cause injured trees to fall.

“Why?” Brandon asks.

I’m ready to dive into a mini-lecture on automobile safety and preventing car crashes when he goes on.

“Why do they do it to little kids?”

Now I’m listening.

“Do what B?”

“Why do they take little kids away from their moms?”

It’s automobile magic, this talking about real things. Our best conversations are – and always will be – while seated in the car, driving somewhere, not making eye contact.

B_KPPBefore his ‘too many words’ moratorium on talking, Brandon asked a zillion questions like this. Why did social services remove him from the care of his mother? Why did he have to leave his grandparents? Why did he have to leave his foster parents? Why is he here with us? Why did his mother leave him? Why did someone take him away from her? Why do kids go into foster care? Why do kids get adopted? Why, why, why?

I do not know the answer to these questions. Not in the big, what’s-the-meaning-of-life way he’s asking. I know the technical answers: evidence of abuse – physical and sexual, exposure to drugs and guns, no clean clothes, not enough food, feral behavior, missing way too much kindergarten. As for the most recent foster parents, the ones he remembers, they didn’t want to keep him because of his erratic and destructive behavior. I’ve never shared that and I never will.

I glimpse the boy I’m still trying to know in my rear-view mirror. His hazel eyes sweep the car’s ceiling before he stares out the side window.

“Why,” he asks in a small voice heavy with sadness, “why did god do that to me?”

My heart rolls into my throat.

I do not know what god was thinking when he plotted Brandon’s early life.

“Maybe,” I say out loud, rolling with the deep rumble that shimmies up my insides stutter-like, gathering tears to spill over my lower eyelids, “maybe god wanted you to be right here.”

I grew up with daily Mass and Catechism, sins and sacraments. In my childhood, God was responsible for everything. I’ve been grown up for a while and I’m no longer sure there’s a god of any kind or color or gender doing anything at all. Kim grew up Episcopalian and Jewish. At our house, we put up a Christmas tree and light a Menorah and put out a Seder plate and hunt for Easter eggs, rituals from both our childhoods that touch a deeper longing.

There’s something beyond flesh and blood, some stardust that binds us. I don’t pretend to know how it works. But I have an idea that Brandon’s meant to be my son. And maybe not just for his sake. I feel it in my bones as I think it, a little shiver snakes across my skin.

“Do you really think god wanted me to be here?” My eight-year-old’s eyes are wide and hopeful. His tone has suddenly shifted from grief to wonder. He sits up straighter. Then he cocks his head and his tone shifts to suspicion. “How do you know?”

I do not know what god wants.

“God’s a mystery, B.  And he doesn’t speak English so I have to guess. A lot. But B, I do think you’re here for a reason. I think maybe you being my son and me being your mom, well, maybe it’s no mistake.”

I plan to heal this round-faced boy from the trauma of his first years. What I don’t know as I steer the car north and west toward my favorite place of peace, is that we only have eleven more years, Brandon and I, to work on the mom-son thing we’re struggling with. The years will be full of Brandon’s anger and distrust, my frustration and growing sense of inadequacy. I’ll lose count of how many times he’s stolen or broken something, how many calls I’ve taken from teachers and principals, how many counselors have given up on him and me on them.

What I won’t notice as much is the way my heart stretches and grows. The way I face challenges with an expanding sense of calm. I’ll grow roots so deep and strong no wind can blow me down. Not a detective calling to tell me about my son’s multiple felonies, not his commitment to residential treatment, not even the dark-eye-circle insanity that will envelope Brandon at age nineteen. I’ll develop a kind of magical looking glass that shows me where pain and sadness live beneath hostility and blustering anger. After Brandon kills himself, after the what-ifs and the what-more-could-I-have-dones, a shudder of realization will rise.

Maybe everything really does happen for a reason. If so, maybe in our particular mother-son relationship, it wasn’t the son who needed the saving.

We fly along between the two rows of cottonwood trees. My dog’s nose twitches and the smell of spring drifts in the open window. Brandon is silent for a stretched-out moment. There are no kicks to the back of my seat.

“Open my window! Open my window!”

I take the window off ‘lock.’ I hear the click as Brandon unfastens his seat belt and pushes up from his booster seat. In the side-view-mirror I see his head poking out the window, sandy hair sticking straight up in the stiff breeze. He closes his eyes and rolls his head in tiny figure-eights savoring the car-generated wind that jiggles his cheeks. A wide, soft smile spreads across his round face. Behind him, the windbreak row of greening cottonwood trees flickers past, the light gray-green undersides of their leaves twinkling when the breeze twists them toward the morning sunlight. Later this spring, the tight buds will burst with puffs of cotton and cover the ground with downy white. For now, blooming is just a promise.

SunflowersMary Mandeville writes in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her partner, one son, and two dogs. Her work has been published in Voice Catcher, Role ReBoot, Nailed!, and Brain, Child. Her essay, Giant Sequoia, won Fugue Literary Journal’s 2016 prose contest and is forthcoming in their journal. Two of her essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Mary is working on a book length memoir about her years with Brandon.

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