When you were a newborn, I watched you sleep. I cradled you, rocked you, nursed you. Three weeks into life, you broke out in hormonal acne, and I studied each tiny spot like a birthmark. I also studied your actual birthmarks: the strawberries on your neckline, the hemangioma on your arm, the oval freckle on your big toe. Your skin was too thin, your breath so shallow, your veins like blue spiderwebs. You were so gorgeously original--so wholly new to this world, to me. I feared and wept and was the kind of happy unhappy only a mother could be. A painful bliss; a fraught, solitary return to simplicity: cry, sleep, wake, eat. Trying to remember every inciting movement--every reflexively curled fist around my pinky finger, every hungry root against my exposed breast.
When I was five years old, I watched you work. In the kitchen, you made pancakes for dinner and turkey sandwiches for breakfast. You still sang the songs of my babyhood--spiders in spouts, piggies going to market. You also sang to yourself while you worked, other lyrics I didn't know yet, like peaches that shook and love that bites. Sometimes you sat in the home office--typing emails and short stories, you said. You were always near me, though. You hardly left me, even when I wished you would go away for a bit. I wanted to know the world as it was without you, but I wanted you to come back to me. I wanted you home before I went to sleep at night. I needed your arms around me, your breath against my forehead. I needed that last kiss of the day. Later, in the darker dark, you'd sneak back in to check on me. Sometimes I'd be awake to hear you whisper in my ear, "Mama loves you. Mama loves you. Mama loves you." Again and again, until I'd push you away, supposedly stirring in my sleep. Did you know how I needed you?
When you were twelve, something changed. I lost you for a long time, too long. You didn't tell me your dreams anymore. In the morning, when I drove you to school, you read a book and didn't want to talk to me. I tried to give you space, to let you grow into yourself, but deep down I knew something was very, terribly wrong. You hated your growing body, I could tell, and I wondered if that was my fault. If my fluctuating weight, my crash diets, made you think I hated my own body, made you think that your body was something too to be hated. The truth is I had always hated and loved my body in equal measure. My body gave me you, my body even fed you--my body was a maker of miracles. But my body was also a burden. It was squishy, sometimes fatter than necessary, and then sometimes far too skinny. I made sure you saw me eat--pancakes and peaches, loving every bite--but you still lost your young appetite. It took a lot of patience, a lot of time, a lot of ugly honesty, for you to come back to me, to your embattled body. Everything I had in mine, I would've given you. As your brown eyes grew bigger, rounder in your lean face, I felt my mother's broken heart swell too. That dormant sacrifice, waiting to be made for you, lay just beneath the surface of my skin.
Now that I'm sixteen, you're teaching me how to drive. You screech when I brake too hard, stomping your foot and clutching the dash. I tell you to chill and you tell me to pay attention, to be diligent. You tell me the insurance is going to cost arms and legs, that I'd better be careful. I buy my own car with the birthday money I've been hoarding since I was born--the checks from grandparents, the savings bonds from aunts and uncles. You kept it all for me in your mother's vault, the place to store all things precious. We talk again--like we used to on winter nights, clutching hot mugs of honeyed herbal tea--even though your worry for me, for us, is still so transparent I cringe. You once told me my baby skin was like see-through sheets of vellum, but it's me who sees through all of you just now.
Eighteen, twenty, twenty-two: each time you visit from college, you are stronger, while I am weaker, though I think I hide it better these days. You don't need to know--yet--that I am sick. It will be years before I pass, and you may have children of your own by then. You'll understand me better with time, as I've learned to let you go, so that you can learn all the strange ways of this world for yourself. I can't sing it away anymore, can't rhyme it all away between our clapped hands, our clasped hands. It's not the kind of illness that can be cured. It's a sweet sickness too, something I need to hold, but only to myself. It's like the rockabye lullabye, the one you loved because I could make it go on and on, making up new verses about the mockingbird as your eyes closed, as your chest rose and fell. What you didn't know then, and maybe still don't know now, is that I never stopped singing for you. With my bones, my eyes, I sing for you still. Just like in the beginning, the bigger you are, the fuller of you I become. I watch the way you talk to me now, the way you teach me about new life and love. Your eyes are still too round for your face, and your breath is still too rapid for my liking, but your body speaks for itself now, speaks in modes that are foreign to me, I know, but even so seem sprung forth from me in their entirety. I grew you, made you whole. You grew me, made me whole. Nothing has changed.