My friend, Ginny, asked me this: “How do you continue to find things to mine from your son’s situation?” This was a fair question, as we are both nonfiction writers and the flow of writer-ly material is important and then she appeared to hear herself and laughed and grabbed my arm and looked chagrined, and hastened to assure me that she meant her question in a good way. A tribute to my creative use of the raw material that appears.
I didn’t know what to say. And I thought about her question for a very long time, turning it over and over. I happen to have a kid who was born with a mental illness that made his childhood tricky and hard to navigate for him and, therefore, for us. Then, while still very young, he was hit in the head and his brain got hurt, but it was many years until the brain injury was diagnosed, partly because the TBI and the OCD were all jumbled together and compulsion looked like defiance and confusion like opposition. And by then he was a young adult who was thoroughly sick of doctors and meds and therapy and so went his own way and struggled a lot, but was stubborn and proud and made lots of bad judgment calls when his executive function looked the other way.
“Every time I begin to write I wonder what I can call mine and what is actually his, my son’s, and what parts of our stories I have the right to tell.”
We all—our family—went along for the ride because we love him so much. And somewhere in there I found an outlet in writing where fear and anguish fueled something other than depression or weight gain or double-shot manhattans, and the stories that surrounded me felt full of information about things that are valuable in life, like kindness and careful listening, taking a second look, and letting go of all illusions of control. As a reader, I know that releasing difficult writing into the world gives priceless community to stunned people.
I thought about what is mine by default and how the word mine brings up images of purposeful seeking, and excavation, but also accidental discovery of riches. What has been mine has simply appeared: veins opening, materials both precious and base presented for the taking. Like tin and iron ore, lead and salt—like pain and confusion and grief—that which can be refined into something important is mostly ugly in its original form. And every time I begin to write I wonder what I can call mine and what is actually his, my son’s, and what parts of our stories I have the right to tell.
It has been discovered that cellular material is exchanged through the placenta and the umbilical cord: child DNA into the mother, bits of the mother lodged in the child’s organs and bloodstream. Fetal microchimerism is what scientists call this phantom presence that persists for decades postpartum; due to differences in DNA, this was first confirmed in mothers who bore sons. Like a subterranean Bering land bridge, it feels satisfying—even necessary—that my children’s cellular detritus is cast onto me and left behind: like my daughter’s leggings wadded on the bedroom floor, like my son’s unopened mail scattered on the kitchen table. As they age into early adulthood, it’s familiar and comforting to see their physical remnants surrounding me, a reminder of us, of our connection. We, who were once so entwined we had to be cut apart.
When does it cease to be theirs and become mine, any of it? At what point can I consider cast-offs abandoned? When he has moved out, moved on, stepped into his own fully functional life? When he has given permission? My son has thrown off his early pain, forgotten it like tracked gravel on the kitchen floor. He left it here with me. I imagine following behind him, picking up and crafting rubble into something useful. Tools for other people—parents, maybe—who find themselves free-falling backwards down a dark and airless shaft.
There is a reciprocal beauty to all of this, like the discovery that fetal cells remaining behind in mothers can swarm to defend her tissues against injury and illness. Scientific theorists are intrigued by this new idea that for many years—and probably forever—after the physical connection between mother and child is severed they remain, literally, part of each other. The experts say the biological paradigm of “self” and “others” must be re-examined. And I submit that there is not separation between what a child suffers and what the mother suffers, although children are eager to forget and move on. Mothers remember and are altered. And so, in that sense, it is all mine.
Linda Sirois earned her M.F.A. in 2014 at Northern Michigan University, and works at the university teaching English and as academic coordinator of the campus TRIO program. She lives in an old Finnish farmhouse out in the hayfields of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with her husband, seven ducks, ten chickens, two cats, and one small barky dog. Her two grown kids wander in and out. Linda’s publication credits include the Passages North online “Writers on Writing,” and the Language Arts Journal of Michigan, as well as numerous regional feature articles.
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