Della has tutoring on Tuesday nights. Once a week I leave campus early, pick her up from school, drive her to the tutor’s apartment, and sit in the car for ninety minutes. I’ve tried a couple of other arrangements, but this is the one that works.
In the spring and fall, when it’s still light, I bring a two-inch stack of student essays with me. They keep me company as I wait. I scribble against the steering wheel and picture the faces of the eighteen-year-olds who wrote them, printed them out, and handed them over to me, a near stranger with a pen. I feel the weight of their vulnerability in my lap. Many of them have been hurt by a teacher somewhere along the way. I try to be one of the teachers who un-hurts them.
Della’s old middle school is nearby, and the kids walking home together cluster and dissipate. They laugh and shove, lean close, then spread apart. Some days the stillness of this waiting time feels like a gift, an extravagance. I put down the car windows and think about how lucky I am. What a beautiful life it is.
In winter, though, when dusk hits at four o’clock and it’s pitch-dark by five, I’m keenly aware that a furless animal like me is not really meant to survive a January in the upper Midwest, and the gloves that keep my hands warm in these conditions can’t also be expected to accommodate fine motor skills like using a pen. On these dark days I fall behind in my work and make the mistake of allowing myself to wonder, Do my students even care what I scribble? Whether I scribble? The self-importance of it, thinking my comments matter. What does it matter what I have to say about what they have to say?
I turn on the radio but don’t listen. The kids pass by quickly: shoulders hunched, fists deep in pockets, purposeful steps. Sometimes one of them will say something: a trickle of vapor from the front of a hood. And another will laugh: a quick burst of fog. And it almost breaks my heart, how short youth is. At this age they’re at the beginning of the end of it, but they don’t know that yet. By the time they do, it’ll be over.
Last Tuesday, when Della got in the car, she asked me if I knew about the normal force. I like when she talks about things she’s learning. It lightens her up for a minute, and I can see the child she used to be. So I said no, because I always say no, but this time I was telling the truth.
It’s a contact force, she told me. It only exists when things touch in a certain way, like a table and the stuff you put on top of it, or your body and the doorframe you lean against. When two things come into this kind of contact, they have to push against one another to stay as separate things.
Like gravity? I asked.
No, gravity pulls down, she said. Normal force is the thing that pushes back.
Cool, I said, and she said, Right?
Somewhere along the line, students get the impression that their best essays are the ones in which they divulge the worst things that have happened to them; that the way to tell the truth about who you are is to talk about the terrible things that have been done to you.
The first batch of essays I get each semester is a pile of broken bones and breakups, dead pets and divorces. I’ve come to understand them as a plea for trade: tragedy for compassion. A dark barter. And it works. They just don’t know yet that “bad things happening to you” usually isn’t a very good story. Or even really about you.
When Della was a toddler, my mother spent many months dying, and I spent many months flying to and from the town that was once my home. That was the beginning of my fear of flying. The idea of leaving Della behind without me, without a mother — that’s what did it.
When I brought Della with me for the funeral, I remember strapping her little body into her car seat, and then strapping her car seat into the airplane seat and thinking, Well, if we go down, at least now we’ll both be dead.
You think such shocking things when you’re a mother.
All those baby books I read when I was pregnant, with their chapters of doom and what-ifs, made me panic so much that Della’s dad finally took the books away and said, I think we’re good. Let’s just wing it from here.
Now I watch the back of her disappear through the doors of an American high school every morning, and then I have to drive away and hope. Just hope. It’s the sum total of what I can do.
Out of curiosity, I take off one glove, google “The human mind cannot conceive,” and get these autofill results:
The human mind cannot conceive infinity.
The human mind cannot conceive of a time without time.
The human mind cannot conceive of effects without causes.
The human mind cannot conceive the sufferings of hell.
I guess these sound right. But how would I know?
Each fall I assign an essay to gauge basic writing skills among first-years. I ask students to select a superpower — flight, super strength, mind reading — and write about how they would use it. Last semester a student chose time travel, then said she’d use it to not be late for work. I can’t stop thinking about this. I think it might be the saddest thing I’ve ever read.
Maybe there really are places our minds just can’t go. Or won’t go, because we don’t trust ourselves to find our way back.
Della’s dad lives in Oregon. He has a snazzy new wife and a toddler who plays with Nerf guns and likes to hit things. When Della visits them, they make her a bed on the couch, and she texts me until she falls asleep. The snazzy new wife is newly pregnant. I get updates on this via Della, who gets them from her father via email. They should be finding out the sex soon, and everyone is excited. Meanwhile there is this thing inside me.
The doctor’s appointment was in the same high-rise office where I had my last ultrasound: the one where we first saw Della on a screen. She turned her head and looked right at us, opened her little skeleton mouth and seemed — really seemed — to say something.
Sometimes when I tell Della about something that happened when she was small, she says she remembers. I start to laugh and tell her she couldn’t possibly, but invariably she’ll recall it down to the color of my shirt, what we had for lunch. She swears she remembers a time when her father still lived at home. Even I hardly remember that.
I have half a mind to show her the sonogram from that day and ask, What were you saying?
I haven’t shown her the new sonogram. The waiting room was mostly full of pregnant women that day, and then there were the rest of us. It made me feel sorry for the ultrasound techs, who must spend their days bouncing back and forth between rooms with babies and rooms with not babies.
It’s 5:14. At about 5:33 Della will come out. I’ll ask her how tutoring went. She’ll say fine. We’ll drive home. I’ll make a veggie stir-fry, and she’ll start her homework.
During dinner we’ll play a game: Boggle usually, or Mastermind. No phones at the table. If I’m lucky, she’ll tell me about something annoying that one of her teachers did, or possibly a friend.
I’ll worry she’s depressed. Or I’m depressed. Or I’m making her depressed. Or more depressed than she would be. That her dad will blame her depression on my depression. I’ll try to remind myself that it’s January in the upper Midwest, and a little depression is natural — an animal response to life-threatening temperatures and near-constant cloud cover.
I’ll suggest we plan a road trip for spring break. Tennessee, maybe? She’ll shrug and say she’d rather just stay home. We’ll stay home.
And after dinner we’ll do the dishes, shoulder to shoulder, then go back to our homework, our phones, the rest of our lives.
I feel confident I can outlast the dog, who is thirteen with failing kidneys. I give Charlie three different pills two times a day, lift him gently onto Della’s bed each night. She helps him down to the floor in the morning, and I carry him outside. He weighs less every day.
He takes his pills willingly from my hand and looks at me with a sweet reliance that makes it clear: I am needed.
I once heard it said that a mother is the box a child lives in. For the child to grow, the child must push, and the mother must expand, while never giving up on being the box. What a weird metaphor. I don’t believe it. Did I ever believe it? I can hardly remember.
What I can remember is Della’s face — at six, nine, twelve years old — so red it looked dangerous, screaming at me from mere inches away: I was wrong, I wasn’t listening, I wasn’t being fair, I’d misunderstood. More often than not she was just hungry, or tired — or maybe I was.
Della was never a Nerf-gun kid. Never a hitter. She can get frustrated — and usually she saves her frustration for me — but hitting isn’t her weapon.
Weeks into her infancy, following the double-stab of the first set of vaccinations (both chubby thighs at once!), our pediatrician pulled his pen from his pocket, wrote something in Della’s file, then pointed the top of his pen at her and said, See how she’s purple? She’s actually stopped breathing. It’s a thing some babies do. Just keep an eye on it.
People say such shocking things to you when you’re a mother.
I looked it up when we got home. Cyanotic breath-holding spells: “A reflex response to strong feelings, the cyanotic breath-holding reflex may cause some children to hold their breath for so long that they pass out. The child does not do this on purpose.”
In other words: she’d felt so betrayed that she’d stopped breathing.
My phone rings. It’s Della’s dad, who’s probably calling to talk about Della’s physics grade and the cost of the tutor, which we’re splitting. She should be able to get a B for free, he’ll probably say. I don’t pick up.
My belly is gnawing at me again. When it really gets going, it falls somewhere between labor pains and food poisoning, and it comes with chills and clamminess and a general feeling of doom. It usually peaks, then recedes, so I’m glad it’s beginning now and not in half an hour, when I’ll be driving.
With luck it should pass before then, and I’ll have a clear window to get home, cook for Della, do the dishes, and finish this stack of dead grandmas before I can close my door and get into bed. Then the pain can do what it must.
By 5:22 I almost allow myself to wish that Della would come out early and sit with me, hold my hand until the pain pulls back. If she’d gotten her driver’s permit in the fall like we’d planned, I could climb in the back, lie down, and let her drive me home. But the dog woke her up in the night, retching on her bed, and she had a big pre-calc test first thing in the morning, for a rigid teacher who “doesn’t believe in retakes,” and then ninety minutes of physics tutoring after an already full day of school. And even after she gets home, she’ll have hours of homework waiting for her — a crime, truly. That’s too much to ask from a child in one day.
My phone rings again — this time the veterinarian calling me back — and I let it go to voice mail. I can’t act normal right now. I practice those breathing techniques they teach you in preparation for labor and delivery.
A woman I know walks by with two small dogs on leashes. I hope to God she doesn’t see me, pale and stiff and hissing through my teeth, but she does. She bends down to look in the window and waves. I can’t remember where I know her from, but this neighborhood is crawling with people I used to know. I tighten my jaw and wave back, but I don’t open the window. There are some things I won’t miss.
The pain in my gut stabs so hard upward that it actually lifts my rear end off the seat.
It’s 5:29. I look at the double doors of the apartment building and pray they don’t open. In the same way that preschool-Della and I used to use our magic mind powers to turn red lights green (Turn green, turn green, turn green — green!), I use my mind to make the doors stay closed, stay closed, stay closed.
It hurts me how much I love her. How much I don’t want this.
As a way of distracting myself, I try visualizing the path I would have to take to get to where she is: In through the double doors. Stop at a panel of buzzers on the wall. Buzz. In through the next set of doors, over to the elevators. Breathe in through my nose — up, up, up, and the doors open — out. Down the hall. Knock, knock. Breathe. Another door opens. Another hallway, a dining-room table, and there she is. She’s so grown-up. Her ears pierced, her shoe size one larger than mine. Her dad’s good teeth. My dad’s blue eyes. My hands.
Sometimes I imagine getting on an airplane again, after Della is grown-up and settled with somewhere to live, something to do, someone to love. I buckle my seat belt across my lap, and as the plane rises, I think, OK. It’s OK now. Do your worst. There would be something comforting about that.
Except what about the other people on the plane? What have I just done to them?
I both wound myself and console myself with the fact that my students don’t actually need me. There are plenty of people who do what I do, and many who do it better. The time teachers spend with their students is so limited. At the end of the year we go back and start over. The students move on. It works as designed. Meanwhile I know seventy-year-olds who are still hobbled by the deaths of their mothers.
As my mind comes back down the elevator, exhale, exhale, exhale, I picture Della in Oregon next year, or maybe the year after. How different it will be. Maybe she will be happy. Maybe I have been a weight around her neck, after all.
How strange to have poured so much energy into stitching this life of ours together, only to take a thread with me and unravel the whole thing when I go.
It’s 5:32. On the radio, a song Della’s dad and I used to dance to when we were young, before anything truly terrible had happened to either of us.
On my phone, two voice mails.
At home, our sweet Charlie.
In my lap, the weight of paper. These children, like all of us, just asking for a little mercy.
In a minute Della will come out the door and look for me — because for now I am the person she looks for when she comes out of a door.
I start the car and turn on the heat, so it’ll be warm when she gets here.