With tears in my eyes I tell my husband, "I would have been a good mother." He says that I am; he also knows what I mean. Like all expectant mothers and fathers, I had faith in the promises of parenthood—pretty much counted on them, even in my dreams—only to find out those promises are for some parents but not others.
We live near a small liberal arts college where Michael teaches photography, on a street which divides the main campus from the athletic fields. When school is in session, the nearby sidewalks and paths pulse with streams of energetic students. Whenever I walk Smellie to the fields, students nod or say hello to me. Masked up, I smile with my eyes and, at the beginning of the semester, I tell them how great it is to have them back in town. As they disappear over my shoulder, my smile melts. With stinging eyes, I think of Calvin. I wonder, again, what he might have been like if not for his brain anomaly. I ask myself:
What kind of student would he have been? Might he have been a math lover, professor or photographer like his father? Would he have been a skillful illustrator, designer or writer? Would he have been a talented athlete? What kind of conversations would we have had? Would he have had a zany sense of humor? or would he have had nothing in common with us to speak of?
I allow my mind to wander to a parallel universe, aware that if things hadn't gone south, Calvin might be looking into colleges by now. Maybe he would've preferred one close to home. Perhaps he would've wanted to head out west to our beloved California. Maybe he'd fall in love there and never return. Perhaps he'd take a year off to travel.
I imagine these scenarios often, knowing none of them will transpire. The loss of those options, those dreams and promises of parenthood, weighs on me with each missed milestone, and probably always will; (we'll never know the joy of being grandparents, for instance.) Maybe that is partly why I cherish the relationships I've made—and kept close to my heart for years—with some of Michael's students: Arnd, Nick, Ivano, Emma, Micah, Hector, Ouda, James, Aspen, Moira, Raisa, Margot, James, Macy, Pawat, Ben, Jean-Paul, Daniel, Salam, Maina, Garrett, Izzy, Trevor, Nevan, Preeti, Colin, Henry, Alice, Octavio, Darius, Nate, J.P., Brennan, Niles, Katie, Jude. They are all incredible young folks—smart, kind, creative, confident, humble, generous and thoughtful—just like we would have raised Calvin to be ... in some parallel universe.
But Calvin, who is seventeen and is inching up on me, and whose face I heartbreakingly shaved for the first time the other day, still chews baby rattles, wears diapers, and loves to be cradled. Though some doctors cited a developmental hiccup, I still grieve whatever it was that caused his brain to be so messed up. I often wonder what kind of boy he would have been, what kind of grownup. I wonder what kind of parent I would have been if things had turned out differently. I like to imagine I would have been a rock star mom to an ordinary, healthy child. You know, one with high expectations though not too strict, one who encouraged autonomy, inspired confidence, offered praise, taught introspection, one not hung up on some of the puritanical aspects of American society. After all, I've always loved children—babysitting them, teaching them, coaching them—even the rambunctious, sometimes irreverent tweens and teens, perhaps because I never really lost touch with my goofy, rowdy, childish self.
But rather than excelling at motherhood in the ordinary ways, I've had to be my son's primary companion (he has no friends), his doctor, his physical and occupational therapist, pharmacist, caregiver and nurse, all rolled into one. That's the kind of mother Calvin needs me to be, and so I'm down. And I know I'm not the only parent who faces deep sorrows, losses, challenges and struggles. I just wish I lived in a certain kind of parallel universe—one which feels light years away—if only for a moment.