I just returned from leaving my children for what felt like a year.
Actually, it was only a week. I was gone for seven nights exactly, but while I was away time opened wide like a yawning mouth.
I went to Big Sur for a writing retreat, and the goal was to settle into my own rhythms, to have time to be quiet, but for the first three nights I was stiff with worry. I worried that someone needed me, that my children were crying, were in pain, that they might stop breathing at any moment, or fall down a flight of stairs. I worried that my phone would ring in the middle of the night, that someone would call with unbearable news.
On the fourth night, upon learning that both of my boys were happily eating and playing and sleeping, I finally let go. In my temporary bed, I settled into a deep and solitary sleep, slept for many hours, and woke when my body told me to wake. I walked a quarter mile to the lodge, filled my coffee cup, sat by the window and believed that all was well.
In letting go, I became truly separate from my children. That I had another life away from the ocean kept surprising me. I had a life of wandering, of writing, of staring out at the ocean, watching the pelicans fly in a row towards the water, and then away from it. I had time to start a thought and finish it.
This feeling of separateness was exactly the purpose of my trip, and yet it disturbed me. When I called home I asked Kellie: Does Smoke miss me? Does Stump even remember me? Do they ask about me?
“You haven’t been gone that long,” Kellie reminded me.
She passed the phone to Smoke, whose voice surprised me. Disconnected from his body, his voice sounded small, like his might have been three years old. I couldn’t make out his freckles, couldn’t see his long and narrow waist. “I can’t hear you very well because Stump is yelling, but I love you,” he reassured me, and then hung up.
On the eighth day I drove and flew towards home and arrived just after bedtime. All the lights in the house were off, and I unlatched our old screen door. Past the roaring fan, I found Kellie asleep next to Stump in the lower bunk, both of them on top of the covers. Stump wore just a diaper, and a pair of Spider-Man underwear over the diaper. I climbed up the bunk bed ladder just to glimpse Smoke, asleep in the dark wearing only his pants.
In the morning Smoke woke too early and I heard Kellie whisper to him, ushering him into our bedroom where I lay half awake. His hair was stiff from swimming and sweat. It stuck up in all directions. I called his name. “Mommy!” he said, and it was all he said. He climbed into bed and into my arms. I listened as his breathing slowed, my own mind drifting back to the ocean, how thick and still it looked on my last day, how three dolphin fins cut through the water, how two whales that morning slipped up for a moment and then back under. I drifted under too, my arms around my son.
Some time passed, and I surfaced again at the sound of Stump’s feet walking the distance from his bed to mine, knowing where to find me, knowing somehow I was home. He climbed in too, and settled on the other side of me, his head just above my armpit, and though he was wide awake he rested a moment before launching into chatter, and in that moment, resting, half-awake, I thought about how being a mother sometimes just means being a body, or even a place, like a wolf in her den, holding space for her cubs to rest against her heat, her smell, to feel her breath and know that they are home.