We stand in the late summer evening in the hospital garden.
She clambers up on the cement benches, hurries across them, chases her father up and down the meticulously planted groves .
“Be careful “I say which is something I have always said and is something, G says, I say too readily.
My brother was here earlier in the week. I was telling him something while we were driving. He remarked on the deep groove between my eyebrows to which I responded something like “I know I know it could use a shot of Botox” and he said, “no no, you have always had that even when you were tiny. I would take you to the playground just like I took a Z and you would look up at the jungle gym and I would ask if you wanted to climb and you look up at me with that furrowed brow and shake your head silently no”
Z climbs confidently and happily to the top. Surveys her world. Climbs back down and reaches for the tiniest bit of help.
I have been forever calling after my children to be careful. I have seen in every situation dire life-threatening consequences because that is how my brain is wired whether shaped by early life or just by nature.
When Willi was six we went to Florida on vacation to the coast where my father died. We gathered shells and watched the surf. We went to Disney land …world? I get them confused. I remember wandering around the ersatz Nepal in the heat with the undulating crowds of people and the lines. I took a picture of a truck filled with half green oranges. W was most excited by the alligators in the ditches. During our week there we went to an air show. The morning had been heavy with thick clouds and threatening rain. It drizzled as we were able to climb in and out of the grounded planes. As the sun broke through the word rippled through the meager crowd that planes were going to start the show.
We hadn’t walked very far, Willi between us only six years old, when the Israeli fighter jet flew high into the sky. Dazzling and bold it barrel rolled, swooped up and up came down and down and down and all of us held our collective breath and it crashed in a fiery ball in a Florida orange grove.
Just moments before it began my mind had played out that very scenario because that is what my mind does. I remember my numb brain as we walked the dazzling white Florida concrete. W didn’t seem too bothered by the event, he was more bothered by my being so distraught.
I tried to remember that last night when I gave Zoe over to her father to bring her into Willi’s hospital room. My own heightened emotion, I thought, might inhibit something between them. In the car going home Zoe said “and mama he opened his eyes. He said good night to me. ” And he did. He crooked his finger had her come closer and said good night.
He has said my name only once. He barked it out as more of an exclamation rather than a question. His father was by his bedside and assured him that I was there. I was on the couch behind his father and Willi rolled in my direction head halfway off the bed opened his eyes and directly looked at me and then went back to sleep. Once when we were alone and he stirred I just said I’m here kiddo just go to sleep. Just go to sleep. And he did.
Being a stepmother is about constant calibration. I remember when he was four and had the stomach flu. He has lived in two homes from three or so — splitting his time equally between the two but when you are sick you want your mom. They know exactly what you need. They are the inchoate sense of love and calm. This isn’t to say that we can’t find it in other places but I have always understood that he had a mother, a loving and wonderful devoted mother and that wasn’t necessarily what he needed me to be to him. He needed me to be his Pam. What that meant when he was four is different than what it means at 14. We have still been navigating that territory together. I am often translator between him and his father. I speak the language of emotions more fluently than my husband sometimes. I offer unsolicited advice… About interpersonal relationships, about navigating the social world, about love. All of which is probably profoundly embarrassing.
What I know is that Willi knows he is deeply loved by me. And he’s always known this. Interfamily dynamics are complicated for the world at large to untangle. We bring to it our own personal baggage, our societal baggage — The first day he was in the ICU the information desk wouldn’t release the information as to where I could even find the pediatric ICU unit. “But I am his stepmother” I cried “you don’t understand, my husband is in there and he can’t text me to come out here and give the okay this is a crisis situation” how could the woman sitting there have known that I have known Willi since he was 3 1/2. That he has two loving and devoted families with whom he splits his time. Or the charge nurse who shooed me off the floor with Willi’s mother’s closest friend and sister. She couldn’t have known who I was so I came up to her afterwards and said “you couldn’t possibly have known but I want you to know that I am Willi’s stepmother.”
It isn’t about me and I don’t want this post to make it seem so. Many of you have known me for a long time as I’ve written here and have wondered why I’m not writing as much as I could here. In our stepfamily dynamic even when Willi was little I always thought of it as my role to provide a loving and warm environment for his father and Willi to be together. Dinner cooker, facilitator, target of Nerf bullets and boy humor. My role is to be outraged at their grossness, to put my motherly disdain on their behavior. All a bit tongue-in-cheek. But I am an introvert by nature and that also means I usually think that other people need the kind of space that I do. Sometimes I give too much space and that is always a place I’m negotiating with step parenthood.
This is a new landscape and for now I continue to do what I’ve always done which is hold my family lovingly in my heart and support my boys, and of course now, Zoe.
When I heard about their bedtime exchange my heart simultaneously filled and broke. Because, of course, I wanted to be there in that moment. But it’s possible that had I been there that moment would not have happened.
I have always believed that love is the most powerful force. My mother, in talking about my father, would always say “your father believed that people are more important than things.”
How we love and who we are to one another is the only thing that matters.