Like a good number of things that end up going terribly wrong, this was supposed to be fun. The kids and I made a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for desserts while my husband stayed home to finish preparations for the ensuing pajama party we’d planned. No one was supposed to bleed in the frozen section.
But that is exactly what happened. About three cart lengths from the New York Cheesecake, my son called up to me, his little hand cupping his nose, while big drops of blood slid down his lips.
Motherhood is marked by moments when your gut says screams help! but your brain reminds you to speak real slow now. I said to both him and me, “Oh boy. Look at that. It’s okay, you just have a little nose blood.” He always calls it nose blood, never nose bleed, and I thought it best to speak his language. “Don’t worry, mama will get you fixed up. Nose bloods are no owies, remember.” The whole time I spoke I scanned our cart, searching for what I know I did not bring: wipes. Not a one. This was all going to take under 30 minutes. I brought my wallet and my phone and that is it. Still, I looked for anything to put over his nose. His hands were solid red from wrist to fingernail. Time was up 20 seconds ago.
“Okay, let’s see here, let’s see. You are doing a great job Rid Man, just keep holding your hand there, I’ve almost got it.” Motherhood is a series of lies. That sounds dark, like the opening line in a thriller, but man if it’s not the truth. Almost there, she’s sorry she hit you, shots are like a tiny pinch.
I was panicking. I knew what I needed but I had no earthly idea how to obtain it. It never occurred to me to calmly walk over to the paper towels, open a package, and clean my son. I just stood there talking, paralyzed between the orange chicken and the fruit pies, watching my daughter attempt to leap from the front of the cart and my son blow blood from his mouth,.
And then help came. It came in the form of a woman about my age, with what I presume was a son of her own in her cart. Her dark hair was cut in a blunt, chin length bob, and she wore one of those dusters that looks like something your grandma knit, but you know cost three hundred dollars. She said, “Excuse me?”
Truth, my first thought: why would this hipster talk to me? I was wearing maternity joggers that have stretched to MC Hammer proportions and a well-loved sweatshirt of my husband’s that yes, I do sometimes wear to bed (did I wear pajamas to Trader Joe's? You decide.). My hair was in yesterday’s braid. I looked like a pregnant woman who maybe helped a friend move all day.
“Here you go,” she said. Her fingers unfolded from around a paper cup with the stamped logo of an indie coffee place. She handed me napkins. Three of them. Brown and 80% post-consumer they claimed. Salvation.
I almost cried. I did blubber.
“Thank you, oh thank you so much. Ridley look, here buddy, put this on your nose. Thank you, I just ran out of the house for a second and of course didn’t bring any wipes. Thank you very, very much.”
I cleaned my son’s face and said thank you a few more times. As we approached the checkout line, I passed her again going into the wine section, and because I never miss an opportunity to be awkward, I stopped her to say thank you twice more.
“Really,” she me, “I’ve been there.”
Once we were all three buckled in the van, the desserts we came for in the seat beside me, I exhaled. I enjoyed the relief of believing these would be the most agonizing moments of January.
I was wrong.
Out of the countless obvious differences between me and the blunt haired mom, the thing I keep coming back to is I don't know who she voted for. No clue. This is a politically charged time and we live in a town where the yards signs vary as much as the cars parked near them. Perhaps she and I agree on policies and politicians as much as we agree on haircuts and fashion. But for all of our time together in aisle 3, politics were forgotten.
She is mom.
I am mom.
She saw that I was in trouble and she helped me.
That’s it. As simple as three napkins.
As profound as providing me the tools to clean and care for my scared little boy.
I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Two weeks after the nose blood incident, my friend Lauren and I took our kids to the zoo. I loaded all of our supplies (and then some, fool me once) into our trusty double stroller. It is spacious, it is thoughtfully designed, it turns on a dime and folds down like a dream. It’s also wide as a Mack truck and thus, shut down the first restroom we entered that day. To set the scene, we are in a three stall restroom filling up with women and children. My offspring laden stroller is clogging the path from the sinks to the toilets while I unsuccessfully attempt to maneuver this thing out the door. Not only have I blocked one stall completely, rendering its occupant trapped, my stroller and I have also made it impossible to access the two available bathroom stalls. I feel myself begin to sweat.
Four women enter the bathroom. I hesitate to call them old, but I am certain they employ phrases like what a hoot and sign their names Love, Grandma at the end of the Facebook comments they leave for their grandkids. But the difference in age didn’t stop them—these women immediately come to my aid. One holds a stall door in place so I can back out, one talks to my kids to keep them happy, another opens the exit door for me until I am all the way free.
I start my profuse thank you track again.
“Sweetie,” the one in the visor says to me, “we are you, 30 years from now.”
How much longer would I have been stuck in the bathroom if they’d not come to my aid? Would the lady in stall one have had to crawl out from under her door to rescue us both?
“I hope so,” I tell my visor-clad hero.
And I certainly do.
My son got lost in January. Those minutes were the most agonizing of the month. The nose blood hardly compared.
It happened inside a children’s museum. I lost him inside a children’s museum. That’s how I am supposed to say it, right? It was definitely my fault.
We were in the physics exhibit. Why would you take a 2 and 4 year old to a physics exhibit?
I kneeled behind our stroller to put away a water bottle. You looked away.
When I stood, Ridley was playing in the rope maze in front of me but Kajsa ran to climb on top of the table with the weird mirror and the light. Your two year old has a tendency to run away. Great job, mom.
She could have easily fallen off the table, but more frightening was her proximity to glass and a hot light bulb. I darted off to get her down. You left your son you left your son you left your son.
When I turned back around, Ridley was gone.
I called his name. No answer. The panic hadn’t set yet, but it hovered, waiting. I swung Kajsa onto my hip and walked past the maze where he’d just been. I said his name again, louder now, but still cheerfully. I said it three times, then four, then I kept saying it and I kept walking and I kept scanning and I knew he was wearing a bright shirt so I should spot him anytime and I looked at the greeter standing by the exit but she was on the phone but surely if someone walked out with a little boy she would have seen something and I said his name again, louder now —
“Are you looking for the little blond boy that was playing with the ropes?” Her compassion was tangible.
“Yes,” I answered. “Yeah, he was just here, and my daughter was climbing so I just wanted to grab her …”
She interrupted me to speak to her own daughters. "Girls, stay right here. Do not move, do not get up, I will be right back.” Good moms tell their children things like that before leaving them alone in public.
“Let me help you find him.”
Two voices shouted at each other inside my head. One went over the facts: where he was, the amount of time I was gone, how close I was to him even at the table with the mirror and the light, the color of his shoes. How good it will feel to hug his little body.
The second voice said only this, over and over, the way I called his name: bad mom bad mom bad mom bad mom.
I could hear the other mom saying my son’s name too, saying it with me. “Brother’s playing hide and sink,” I told my daughter while we searched. Ridley calls it hide and sink. He loves that game. He doesn’t understand it’s not always safe. I experienced a flash of comfort because I am certain he is hidden on purpose, crouching somewhere, trying to stay out of sight while we hunt for him.
The flash of comfort was brief. I spent puberty liturgizing myself on Lifetime movies and true crime episodes of Dateline. I can go from zero to worst case scenario in nothing flat. Against my will, one part of my brain was already there.
What if he’s not hiding? What if he’s sinking?
“I found your boy!”
I ran toward her voice.
My first words when I turned the corner and saw him standing there: of course. He wasn’t hiding. He was drumming. In the twenty seconds it took me to retrieve his little sister from certain concussion, he’d bolted to Toddler Town to play the little Fisher-Price drum. Irrelevant to him was the fact he has a full drum set at home. It’s ridiculous he would run to the little plastic toy. And it was a grace I do not deserve .
Relief left me nearly speechless. “I can’t thank you enough,” I told the mom who found my son.
She waved me off like it was no big deal. As she walked back to her own children I noticed for the first time the differences in our ages, and our clothing, and the way we’ve chosen to style our hair.
People might say we don’t go together.
Many of us have been blessed with a tribe: I know who to call if my kids are sick and we’re desperate for groceries. I know who to text if I’m struggling and need prayer. If our car breaks down I can think of five friends in the same number of seconds who would drop their day and pick us up. But what happens when we’re really stranded? Who is there to help when we are less wolf pack and more lone wolf?
What I’m learning is that becoming a mom is not like being initiated into an exclusive club. It’s more like being adopted by an ancient sisterhood.
In thirty years I want to put on my best visor and go with my girlfriends to the zoo. I’ll hold doors for tired moms and smile at their babies, and tell them how my grandkids have a Sophie teether too.
But more than that, I want to spend the next 30 years firmly establishing myself on Team Mom. The next time I’m out I hope none of the moms I meet have bleeding children or lost children or are without a much needed pack of wipes. But if they do, if they are, I'll be ready. For those seconds or minutes or moments that are happening in real time but lasting in cruel suspension this will be the only truth, that’s my sister. She is cooler than me, and older than me, and a better mom than me too. But it doesn’t matter. I'm with her.