I am expecting this question on a rainy day. We will be stuck inside, all of us feeling broody. He’ll find me with my hand wrapped around a mug, staring at a book or over bubbling pot, maybe out a window. He’ll ask then.
I am prepared for this question to come on a road trip. The other children will have fallen asleep. We will think he is sleeping too. He’ll have small earbuds in, if those are still around, and a hood over his head. He’ll flick out just one ear bud, just one. I think that’s how teenagers do it, with a slight head lean and only their index finger. He’ll still have music in one ear and he’ll ask.
He’s always 15 in my mind, when he asks. Never 12 or 18. Certainly not 25. Certainly not five.
But he was five. He is five. He asked a few weeks ago. It was sunny. There were only three of us around and no one was brooding. I sat cross legged on the floor, looking up at two of my kids where they draped their bodies over the couch. We were talking about the friendship arc of Woody and Buzz Lightyear and about what kind of candy we should give out to trick-or-treaters, and did they know to say thank you even to the neighbors who gave out tootsie rolls and miniature toothbrushes.
Ridley looked right at me and asked, “Did Moses’ mom put him in the basket because she didn’t love him?”
In film noir from fifty and sixty years ago, when someone falls a great distance, like down an elevator shaft or off a roof, post production might add these weird spiral effects or a blur of strange color so that the audience understands: this is dangerous and very disorienting.
A Hollywood special effects tech from 1955 needed to add some spirals around me as I fell from the force and heartbreak of this question. Too soon! Today? Why would you think that? How long have you been wondering that?
For a woman falling down an elevator shaft, my voice was surprisingly steady and my mind mercifully quick.
“Oh no, bud, she loved him so much. That’s why she put him in the basket. Remember what was happening?”
I remember your mom putting you in the blue jogging stroller for the last time, on the last day she saw you. You were three days from one year old and very sleepy and she asked if she could buckle you and I said definitely and thought who answers with the word definitely while I watched her carry you to the stroller. She brought you close to her. She hugged you, said I love you baby. Took her a minute to get the snaps right but she got it and you never cried. What did Moses’ mom whisper to him? Did he cry?
“Remember what Pharaoh was doing to the all the Hebrew babies? Remember why it was dangerous?”
Do you think that would be a safe situation for baby? Social workers ask questions like this to birth moms I guess. This is our sixth visit and today is an “I think I can do this” day. Some visits are “I can’t do this, but I wanted to see him” days. The first visit was more “who the hell are you and why didn’t the foster parents keep him; I like them, and I don’t understand.” One really successful, “let’s get to know each other visit” ended with the social workers telling me, she really likes you, she thinks of you like a big sister. Today felt different though. She’d been making plans. Plans obviously flawed to anyone who’d ever been charged with caring for a baby, but still. Plans are big. She said: I’ll work nights at this grocery store that posted a job looking for stockers and then I’ll be with him during the day. They said: But who will watch him at night? She said a name known to the social workers. This potential babysitter had her own children removed and placed in the state’s care. Not a candidate for child care by any stretch, but this is all she had. Thus, the do you think that would be safe? And while it was crystallizing more solidly that she would not ever be taking him home (The economy still walked on shaking legs then. Three hundred well-qualified men and women applied for this one job. A line of applicants stretched around the street. I looked it up. This wasn’t uncommon. How would a high schooler ever land something that could support herself and a baby?) I gave her credit. She’d done what was asked. She’d formulated a plan. It was about as safe as weaving a basket and placing your baby inside it then pushing it out into a river, but it was a plan nonetheless.
“Because he was killing the babies.”
“That’s right. He was killing the babies. And Moses’ mom wanted Moses to be safe and to get to grow up and to have a mom and a dad. And she knew to keep him safe he couldn’t stay with her, so she sent him to a place where he would be safe.”
The mom and the dad thing. I know it doesn’t say that in the Bible. That line wasn’t a part of my felt board story either, but I always add that in adoption stories. James and Lily Potter—wanted Harry to have a mom and dad. Why did Cinderella’s dad get remarried—wanted her to have a mom and dad. One of his best pals who happens to be in the adoption process right now. Yeah, his tummy mommy wanted him to have a mom and a dad.
I add this because it’s what she said.
Part of her wants to keep him and part of her knows she can’t. Social workers say things like this over my shoulder when I am trying to buckle a sleepy six-month-old into a still-foreign-to-me car seat after an hour-long visit. I am sweating and spent and hoping this sweet little guy will fall asleep easily because I just learned you don’t have to drive straight home if your baby falls asleep in the car. There is no mom rule against driving with a sleeping baby all around town, going through a Starbucks drive through, letting them nap some in the car. Do other moms know about this? I get him in and cover him with his blanket, tucking it in tight because what if he pulled it over his face and I am sitting up front oblivious drinking a stupid latte. Then I place Car Duck in his hands and smile at him and close the door. The social worker is standing a foot away, waiting for my reaction to this insight. She wants him to have a mom and dad, she says to prompt me. It’s what she never had and she knows that’s what he’ll have with you. That’s a big deal to her. Yeah. That is the reaction I give her, yeah. Yeah, that is a big deal.
So to this day, five years later, I make a big deal out of it.
Ridley is either satisfied with my answers or bored because he is getting off the couch now and headed to the back door. “She loved him!” I call after him, trying to fill the final moments of his attention with the most vital facts. He looks at me. “Moses’ mom loved him so much she put him in the basket so he would be safe. She didn’t give him up. She gave him a mom and a dad because she loved him.”
He nods or maybe he fixes his shoe, something non-committal and no longer particularly interested. For the duration of this conversation he has worn a Pull-Up diaper on his head. There is hole cut on the top of the Pull-Up and through it protrudes a plastic gray funnel Ridley found in the garage. He has jimmy rigged his very own Tin Man hat. If this whole apparatus weren’t partly made out of a diaper it would be awe-inspiring, really. His creativity and ingenuity surprise and delight me. I have no idea what he will become but my guesses range from theme park designer to sculptor to drummer in a band. Who takes a diaper and a funnel and thinks, I can work with this?
We watched the Wizard of Oz for family movie day a few weeks back. Kajsa enjoyed it. Ridley became obsessed with it. Kajsa chose to be Glinda for Halloween. Ridley wants to be the Tin Man. For life.
That day of the Moses question and the diaper tin can hat, in a particularly analytical and melancholy moment (some brooding after all), I thought, Oh! He can’t be the Tin Man. I don’t want Ridley to spend his life searching for love, believing he must be missing something, to become frozen, tin. I don’t want him to follow every searching girl or hurting boy down a brick road leading to danger in pursuit of what he believes he does not possess. You already have it! Could I open the back door and shout that at him where he sits at his drums? Don’t spend your life searching for love, on some journey for a worthless plastic heart on a chain. She loved you! I love you!
I can’t shout down this pain. I can’t stop him from walking down this road.
Days pass between the Moses question and the time when I finally gather enough courage to ask my husband a question of my own. “Does he hurt already?” Don’t answer that. I’m afraid.
“Yes.” I knew he would say that. “I think he knows this is not the way it is supposed to be. And I think he feels the separation he experienced, even if he can’t remember it or articulate it.”
“He says he wants to be made of tin because his flu shot won’t hurt then. He believes by changing his composition, he can avoid pain.”
Every time Ridley announces he is tin and nothing hurts, a C.S. Lewis quote floats hauntingly across my mind. Lewis is writing about avoiding pain by locking up one’s heart. To keep a heart intact he suggests “avoiding all entanglements” and securing it in a casket. He writes, “But in that casket, safe, dark, emotionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
A new ritual: I mouth this verse over him silently throughout the day. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
It’s not so good for a boy to be made of tin.
When he walks past me I stop him by surprise for hugs or tickles. I ask him, what am I going to say right now. He smiles, this has become routine. I love you. Yup, I love you. I answer his questions about Tummy Mommy with enthusiasm, the way one talks about a special girl who blew into their life like a tornado. I surrender him to God. I surrender, I surrender, I surrender. It hurts already.
I don’t yet know if this story ends with a witch or a wizard or a magical balloon.
He’s taking us with him. Moses’s sister followed the basket. That’s what families do.
Where we headed Ridley? Please believe me when I promise you, beloved son you’ve always been home.