Over breakfast, L. and I talk about the limits of love. She tells me about her son and the time he spends in and out of jail. He is so young – still a boy, really. He is due out, again, but she says she knows that it is only a matter of time. “Next time, we’ve already been told,” she says, “the sentence will be longer, he’ll be put in maximum security.”
She pokes at the contents of her bowl with a spoon. “We’ve already been told.”
We have known each other for so many years. She has seen me in my darkest days. When several years ago, I show up at her door, dazed, despondent, she takes me in and makes me tea, and we sit in her backyard, facing the water. We talk until the light fades. As I stand to leave, I have cried so much that I am weak, depleted. She holds me up.
I look at her across this table and there is nothing I can say that will change anything. I tell her about the book that M. was reading. The one about the father who tries to save his son. “In the end, we can’t control anything,” he had said, as he slid the book back onto the shelf. “We can’t even keep our own children alive.”
I’m sitting in the parking lot of my doctor’s office, waiting. It’s raining, just a drizzle, really, but it’s cold and gray. In the morning, sitting over coffee, I tell M. about the appointment. The procedure is quick, simple. I say, “Because we can’t be too careful, right, because we are so done,” It is a joke, of course, the boy now five, me at forty. It is a joke and I wait for his response, but he pauses a moment too long.
“Because we are done, right?” I say again, too loudly.
I look at him. He holds his hands around his cup. Long, beautiful fingers. He looks down.
Finally, he speaks. But softly. “It’s just a hard thing to answer,” he says. “Of course we are done,” he says, “but it’s a hard thing to say.”
In the early days, it was me who wanted. It was me who said, “Can’t we at least consider it?” And finally, our tentative agreement reached and within weeks, we were on our way. We expected it to take longer. We expected it to be more difficult. A file had already been started for us at the adoption agency – a kind of insurance. We called to cancel the home study.
We took Z. to the park on an afternoon in late winter. In the gazebo, just the three of us, we sat on the ground and handed her the envelope so that she could be the one to open it. She could be the one to tell us: A boy! We held hands and laughed and walked around for a bit, let the frost and the dried leaves yield beneath our feet. A boy.
In the classroom, we talk about story, try to define it. We call out our ideas. He lets us talk, our fearless leader, and then he says this:
“Something important changes forever.”
Yes, of course. Just this.
And I think about those moments – the seeds of our stories. The ones we tell each other, the ones we know, and the ones we are just in the middle of now – at this very moment – where we don’t yet know what comes next. How we can’t yet know what is important. What will change us, for how long.
Did you know then, sitting close to him on the couch in your tiny apartment, his face illuminated by the blue light from the television screen, long after the credits have ended, long after there is anything left to see. How you sit there in that blue silence and reach out to touch him and how he doesn’t pull away. Do you know what you are starting, even then?
Or in the hospital, as you watch him take your mother’s arm to steady her as she shuffles down the long hallways. How small she looks next to him, how frail. How you imagine him lifting her up and carrying her, cradling her like a child and the imagining itself warms you, brings heat to your skin.
Or in front of the hotel lobby, when he comes up behind you and wraps his arms around you. You can feel his heart, its pulsing. His grip is so tight, he pulls you so close you wonder what else is there, holding him up.
There, in the classroom, with the windows bolted shut against the heat of the Miami afternoon, you look down at the page you’ve been scribbling on, and the question you’ve written, again and again is: What are the bounds of love?
On the morning she died – early, before the sun – I walked my mother down the hall to the bathroom. When we got there, she shook her head and so I walked her back. She went back to bed and so did I. Not long after – an hour, maybe two – I woke to the sound of her moaning, softly. I sat next to the bed, took her hand. Her skin was cool and dry.
In those last months and years, we fought all the time. We played out our roles in the strange choreography – the movements that had been imprinted on us for longer than we could recognize. A fierce, selfish, suffocating love – in that way, weren’t we the same. Could we not, in fact, have been cut from that same cloth?
After angry words, always we would try to erase them. To say I am sorry and I love you. You know how much I love you.
It changes nothing to say this here. Now. Nearly twenty years later. You are gone. You have been gone now for longer than I knew you. More unknown than known. It changes nothing. It saves no one and yet it can still be true: I am sorry. And I love you. I have never – for a moment – stopped loving you.