Bad news from the Bronx. The virus has killed my student’s mother. He’s only seventeen. She must have been young. Horrifying the alacrity with which his world is disemboweled.
No preparation, no goodbyes, no final words of wisdom or instruction. Just here today hi-mom-i’m-home, gone tomorrow, empty house. COVID-19 wins. Mom is dead. She’s been murdered by an invisible assailant, abetted by the country’s evil leadership that refused to enact precautions until it had spread unchecked, until it was too late to prevent the catastrophe that is our Now. I am overcome with impotent rage. What must he be feeling?
In saner times, I could perhaps visit him, take the family a covered dish or a tear-moistened cake. Even if that were possible, he’d probably hate it. I would have at his age. But still I want to reach out. I want to tell him I know what he’s going through, I guarantee his life will get better, and he will prevail. Would I be lying? Not entirely.
Years ago, as a teenager, I learned out of nowhere that my mother wasn’t coming home. The message was brutal. An unlicensed driver had plowed head-on into the van she was driving. He was a blind drunk, they told me, who left her a mess of shattered bones, profuse bleeding. Her prognosis was bleak.
At first, I felt nothing. When the initial numbness wore off, I succumbed to a seething, bottomless anger that sharpened the pain. I thought the only way I would overcome my voracious ire was to kill the driver or kill myself. The impulses passed, and my story ended more happily than this boy’s.
My mother did not die.
We were dissembled, but she was alive. Further, the evil that upended my mother’s life had a specific shape, a recognizable form. My student’s mother’s assassin is an insidious, invisible monster, empowered by the administration of a Nation that should have been her refuge. There is no justice to be sought. No stopping the demon. No closure. I had that much.
The drunk driver was apprehended, fined, incarcerated. It satisfied me to know that his children would be kept from him the way I was kept from my mother.
For the first few months, I saw my mother intermittently, for brief intervals. I stood silent at the foot of her hospital bed as she meandered between the black void of her unconscious and the small, rectangular room. I didn’t try to talk. That would have been futile. She didn’t know me or any of her seven children. Even when she was awake, she was unable to focus for more than mere seconds before she lapsed back into her quasi -comatose state. Doctors could not be sure she would survive, but they were certain she was in imminent danger of losing her leg.
My anger turned inward as I shifted into ersatz adulthood. There seemed no other solution but to become my own mother and to care for my siblings. I was fifteen, at best a poor imitation, a second-rate surrogate. I failed miserably, which fueled my self-loathing. There was no one to lead me. My father, paralyzed by his fear of losing mom, sat endlessly by her bedside, holding her hand. He only occasionally left her to eat or to shower or to make perfunctory, fruitless attempts to find us assistance. I applauded, often assisted the demise of the erstwhile caretakers. Eventually, there was no other solution but to temporarily entrust the care of the younger children to friends and relatives.
For twenty months, mom lay between life and death. She survived the initial danger and then a second, the invasive surgery to save her leg. Once the kids were safely ensconced, I wandered dysfunctionally through my rudderless adolescence. I ate too much, read too much, cried too much and talked to no one. Without a mommy, I did not matter.
Still, I was the lucky one. Mother’s presence returned, and for a year, she commandeered our household from the hospital bed installed for her on the first floor. She martialed our activities, relying on me to potty train my baby brother, to quiet the restless quarreling and mischief of the others, to maintain order. I did laundry, cooked meals, and drove everyone to their appointed rounds. I was no better at it than I was before, but I did have guidance.
In the evening, when Dad was late returning from his sales routes and the kids were asleep, Mom and I talked. We argued over the symbolic implications of The Brothers Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor. We compared Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. We listened to music and planned for the week ahead. For the first time, Mom allowed herself to open up, to share the details of a life she had kept carefully concealed: her childhood in Europe, her escape from the Third Reich, her myriad losses. I felt trusted for the first time, almost her equal. Without realizing it, however, I had lost the ability to trust her.
I did not tell her about the man on whom I had a serious crush. Nor did I confess that I was terrified of the drinking among my peers, which defined all social engagements. She was impatient with my “scribbling,” the journaling I did on weekend mornings when chores needed doing, so I shared little of myself. I won speech contests, wrote prize-winning essays, starred in our class play, and she came on her crutches to applaud me. But I could not tell her that I was desperately lonely and, despite my outward extroversion, inordinately shy. I wanted to explain — but how could I without suggesting recrimination? — that those two years without her had robbed me of my ability to make friends because my carefully-constructed emotional walls blocked out the sunshine of healthy attachments. When I chose a faraway college I had never seen, I lied and said it was the only school that would have me. I could not find the words to confess that I needed to escape her omnipresent limp, the dizzying reminder of that devastating message: your mother’s not coming home.
My student’s predicament reminds me how grateful I should be.
That boy will never know the kind of reversal of fortune that was my gift. His mother won’t be there to cheer at graduation or help him buy the corsage for his virtual prom date or sign off on his AADA (American Academy of Dramatic Arts) loan applications. She cannot hold him now, wipe his tears, soothe his anguish. She’s never coming back.
If I am still ferreting through the damages wrought by my two years of aimless self-destruction, at least I have the consolation of an adulthood spent getting to know my mother as a woman, as a friend.
It’s my natural impulse to want to put my arms around this student, to offer him a shoulder or an arm or whatever support he might be willing to accept. But between Metoo and our absurd new Abnormal, contact is impossible. I can only send him virtual hugs, electronic condolences.
So I stand aside and hope he will be allowed to grieve as long as he wants. That he has the license to remain a boy until he is fully ready to be a man. That when the time comes, he will mature into someone who is without the weight of anger, someone who can, in the absence of justice, find his own closure.