What I Really Want

My mother sat the length of this past winter in a chair alongside the hospital bed of her youngest son, my little brother. She and I spent the long days of her bedside vigil texting the time away, across the divide—two states between us and all the unspoken emotion that illness brings. I sent her a link one day to the poem The Lanyard by Billy Collins—a poem, essentially, about a grown up realizing that the camp-made lanyard he gave his mother as a youth was scarcely enough to recompense her giving him life, for giving him everything. I was thinking of my mother, of motherhood, of the tirelessness and thanklessness of the job—and my mom texted back immediately: “But the thing is,” she wrote: “It was even. It was enough.”

As Mother’s Day approaches, my kids ask in earnest, and sweetly, “What do you want, mom? Really.” And I answer with things like, “I have everything I want,” or, “I just want you.” And there are hearts in both of our eyes as they busy themselves away from me, in secret, cooking up schemes. On the big day, they are elaborate with their gestures and deliver me toast and eggs and love letters and the newspaper in bed, my book tossed aside hastily as I hear their tread outside the bedroom door and I feign sleep and then, surprised wakefulness. I cover them with kisses and coos as they clamber on the bed and share my breakfast, eating it mostly, hungrily, themselves.

The act of making me breakfast, so grand in their minds, is empirically paltry to the loaves of toast I’ve buttered on their behalf and the hundreds of eggs I scramble so that they can have hot breakfasts before braving the walk to school. The sweet notes I get but once a year have nothing on the emails, the letters, the phone calls, the heartache and the tears I’ve expended for them, and yet…

It is even. It is enough.

My youngest is four and has a walk in closet in his bedroom—he owns nothing but toys and so the closet is a repository for things in our life that don’t have places: wrapping paper, letters, mementos from the past. I saw him secretly trying to avoid me one lazy afternoon and could tell he was sneaking something out of the closet. “Do you have my rock?” I said. His voice was small as he answered, “Please?” As in, please can I have it? The rock is a perfect egg shape, but giant, found at a camp in what practically feels a former life, veiled by years and nostalgia and gap-filled memories. I was a teenager when I found it, middle of the forest, just lying there looking preternatural, like a dinosaur egg left behind from the Mesozoic. I was baffled by the rock, its oddity made it a treasure and so I’ve kept it without any attached significance, only that it looked cool. I had it on a windowsill in college, it survived moves and storage and all sorts of things only to end up in the hands of my little one, about to take it into the backyard to bash it with a hammer, because “there might be diamonds in it.”

And I think this as I watch the hammer hanging in the balance, the rock’s fate certain: I kept that rock for 25 years and here it is, about to be bashed for whimsy, for no reason, for five minutes (if I’m lucky) of childish entertainment. I wonder at how easily I relinquish whatever staying power it has had in my life, and when my son bangs at it, I stare at his determination and I laugh.

I am incredulous at the whole thing-at the entire roundabout fate of this rock: is it anti-climactic or is it beautiful? Because what is a dumb rock when compared to my son's smile, his want fulfilled? What is a love note delivered simply on the breakfast tray, the letters crooked but hand-wrought? What is a lanyard braided hastily at camp, but braided, I'm sure, with pure intent? What is any act or sacrifice that a mother makes for her children or a child makes for their mom? It’s love.

And love?

Well, that’s the best gift ever, and it’s all I really want.