When The Boy On The Couch Isn't Yours Anymore

by Liz Petrone
Originally Published: 
A mother and her son sitting on a beige couch while looking at a tablet
Mypurgatoryyears / iStock

“Your face!” I said to Jack the other night, reaching over, touching his cheek. There was a fresh scratch — nothing major — running from his temple to his eye, ugly and red.

He shrugged away from my hand, didn’t look up from the TV. “It’s nothing. I scraped it playing baseball earlier. It’s fine.” And then: “Don’t make it a thing.”

Don’t make it a thing?

This child — now 10 — came to me for years, everything a thing: every bump, scratch, scare, and emission presented to me to patch or soothe or clean. His entire existence was a thing.

My thing.

In the beginning, I used to lay in bed next to this one, his body pressed against mine after he had fallen asleep nursing, his mouth still moving even after the breast had fallen away, and wonder if I held him tightly enough if our heartbeats would synchronize. I had read somewhere when I was getting ready to birth him that newborn babies and their mamas will regulate each other’s body temperatures, and so I thought maybe the same could happen with our hearts. His tiny, perfect, unmarred by life or loss bird-heart that I had listened to on a Doppler months before I met him maybe slowing to meet mine, or the reverse: mine — a little rusty and visibly cracked in a few places — speeding up, pumping this new blood of motherhood into my veins.

I had all these things I wanted to tell him then, in those first days and weeks: about how I had no idea — just none at all — what love was until I met him, and how he was the most incredible thing I had ever seen even if he did have a little dusting of black fur covering a lot of his body. I wanted to make all of the promises to him: that I would protect him, and it would be beautiful and nothing would hurt. But he was sleeping (thank sweet Jesus) and only a fool would wake their baby even if it’s with whispered promises. So instead I would just press my hand into the fleshy part of his belly, feel the slight give of his still-soft ribs, and pull him closer to me.

When I was young — five, maybe — my family rented a cabin on a lake. One evening my sister and I went out on the dock after dinner to feed pieces of our Popsicles to the fish. We sat on the edge, dangling our feet off and letting them come close to the surface of the water but never touch, because once my toe had been mistaken by an overly eager fish for a chunk of bread, and trust me when I say that is a mistake that only happens once.

The dock was wet just a little and Katherine was wearing a bathing suit, and even as I watched the fish chase the Popsicle chunks and the shadows of my toes, I thought I could see her in the edge of my periphery sliding ever so slightly closer to the edge. But then I would turn, look at her straight on, and she wasn’t moving at all, was still there, next to me, popsicle in hand.

Except then suddenly she wasn’t. She was in the water, or more accurately, under it. I remember no splash or fall, just her there and then not there, and then under the surface of the water, her totally calm face turned up, eyes wide open, looking at me.

She didn’t know how to swim and neither did I, but I called for my parents and my dad came running down the dock in what felt like two strides, his adult legs longer than my whole self was then. He jumped in fully clothed to save her, and that splash I remember. It was spectacular.

Back on the couch with this boy I remember my sister and how when I looked at her full-on she was solid, unmoving, just my little sister on the dock with a green Popsicle. This boy is like that, just a little boy on my couch watching TV. My boy. But when I turn away, to dinner or his siblings or my own life, I swear I see him slipping, just a little at a time, toward the edge. I know one day I am going to look up and he won’t be next to me anymore. There won’t be a splash or with this one, even a jump — just a quiet edging toward his own life he is making out there in the world, away from where he started, pressed up against my chest.

And I am proud and grateful and humbled by this miracle of witnessing, the gift of having sat on the dock with this one — or the other three, who are each no less miraculous. It’s just that he is the first whom I am watching prepare to launch. But I am also worried about what will happen to my heart, since it has indeed regulated itself to the heartbeats of the four small humans in this house, and I’m not sure it even knows how to beat on its own again.

But then I look head on again and he’s not gone yet. He’s next to me on the couch, and he has this scratch — nothing major — that runs from his temple to his eye. It has started to bleed just a tiny bit and it’s lined in garnet dots; a delicate red bracelet like the one his father gave me for Christmas when I was so swollen with this baby inside me that had I worn a red suit and a beard, I could have easily been mistaken for Santa.

I will not make this a thing, I tell myself, but I’m afraid if I look away he will slide. So I sit and stare at the scratch, will my hand to stay in my lap, not reach over, not brush his cheek, but I can’t help it. I press my finger to the scratch, pull back little tiny beads of blood on my fingertip. His blood.

My blood.

And he slides then, because I looked away, down at my finger. It’s a tiny thing, nothing you would even notice if you weren’t sitting right there. He doesn’t even look away from the TV. All he does is shift/lean/exhale, but this slide, amazingly, is different. This time he somehow ends up closer to me on the couch.

I will not make this a thing either, I tell myself, even as I do make it a thing, in my own little heart, which is synchronizing like when I plug in the drained iPad. I still want to make the promises: tell him it’s going to be beautiful out there and nothing is going to hurt, but I can also feel next to me now that his ribs are strong, and he needs the promises less.

I also still know deep down that one day I am going to look up and he won’t be next to me anymore.

Just not today.

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