The sad plight of old parents—we know all days are small.
By the time you are old enough for regrets, it’s possible
I will be in the place where regrets are rainwater.
And so I tell you this: when you sleep your hands
reach out to grasp what isn’t there. Already your fingers
search the emptiness with a kind of expectation.
What will soothe you? Your downy head
soothes me this night, the breath of hair
that rises against my lips as you doze, recently fed,
on my chest, although you do not know me.
I am only a voice, and in the night across the blank sky
of the room, I come to you, through a predictable darkness,
muttering a clumsy language. I love you—
I love you because you will not remember
the moments I cherish most. You cannot replay this.
You are not wholly human yet. Everything of you
resembles a human, resembles me—this large
nose you will come to resent, these arched brows.
When you see yourself in the mirror, you laugh,
then scream as if in fear, then fall into eerie solemnity.
Already I am recording your life for you. It’s a good thing
it trickles into your ears sounding foreign, my words, chatter,
like the birdsong overhead when we walk through the park,
the park where the branches are black threads
and in your carrier your head bobs against my chest,
a ribcage full of clamour, the smell of sweat and milk.
My breasts fill and swell. The sky above: silt-white.
You squint your eyes against the ashy light of winter.
I try to show you the dogs but you never look.
They skitter inside the fence and bark robustly at the day
as if it’s a stranger. You always turn toward the trees.
Small son, small sun, I hum against you.
You are growing, four inches since I met you,
since you began to be human. Every day you are already gone,
a fragile part of you fades. I, too, am gone. Like the shadows
of the sycamore that fall across us when you open your eyes
to see we’ve returned home. There are four walls and we roll
forward and back in the chair now, and your face presses
into my robe for this thing you know how to extract,
which I cannot control.
When you grow up and watch TV, remember:
there are no action movies where women weep,
nurse babies, and drive the car at breakneck speeds
cross-country to get to sick fathers. Not even one.
The George Washington Bridge lights float, blue-green,
like a strange dream. Do you wonder why
you are nursed in the front seat in Jersey, no time
for proper stops, dash heat blasting, windows fogging,
forlorn gas station parking lot, snow-sunken, no change table,
just a sad blue Porta-Potty, or why I cry quietly even as I drive?
You have no words for this isolation, this frantic journey.
Neither do we. Only the trembling sound of PJ Harvey
in stereo: Let England Shake. Her thin voice flashes past us,
harrowed arrows—white of dividing line on road.
You struggle in Stroudsburg, scream through Scranton,
babble and nod off in Binghamton, and object to all of Ontario.
There will be times I cannot comfort you—times for steering
our lives, more than tending our emotions.
When we reach him, my father is a fading man, hug of bones.
There is only the breath of the ones we love.
Listen to me, Bright Shadow, so recently you came from
a nowhere place, and a nowhere place now calls for him.
Says he’s not too bad really; it’s almost a joke. Lymphoma
is the word we all wait to learn. An appointment
that can’t treat weeks already gone. Waiting days are longer
than any of us want, yet also too fast.
You both eat small bites—your first solids, Pablum.
His last, pudding. You grow, he shrinks.
We snap pictures of you, and none of him. Too thin,
he can no longer stand. My brother says, Take a photo
and we’ll have a Before and After, for when he beats this.
But there is no beating it. There is only a Now.
I bring you to visit every day, sit you up, try to make you smile
to make him smile. My son, I’m sorry to doll you around this way.
I show him what I call Golf Swing, rotating, your small body
clutched in my arms. Firm, easy, bend at the knee.
Three turns and slowly, your eyes shut. Breath calms.
He is impressed. It is nice to be able to impress my father
even as he is dying, even as I swallow my feelings
until I have taken you away. In private, my collapse—
my grief is a giant falling upon you. The dark divot
of your belly button collects my tears.
Freshly diapered, you stare up, unfazed by this gut-sob.
Please tell me you will not remember any of this.
Months 5 and 6
Too exhausted to wake to feed you, you sleep in our bed.
I hold you as close as the night holds the city streets.
He has left the Now. I lie down and don’t get dressed
for three days. You reach for me like you know what’s wrong.
The rain at the window. March, with its lamblike ins,
and lion outs. The melancholic roar.
New York puts on its spring fashions—wedge sandals,
deep V-tees, hi-lo hems—just as Ontario sheds its winter coats.
For me the pregnancy weight has come off, leaving behind
a hollow, unbecoming, anorexic sorrow. The days grow
longer, and soon it is time to get up.
Time for first teeth to shine through hard gums.
Time for Coney and the aquarium. Things that remind
us to be alive. Amorphous jellyfish rise:
whispered indigo in tanks. Time for sunhats
and sitting up. O, funny creature, the accomplishment
of sitting! To Facebook a joy that is almost wrong,
broadcast you to a sparse universe of strangers.
Your bubble-eyed face will make up for everything.
Such expectation as it goes out, like a bug through the grass.
Your mouth fits around words now,
and everything else too. You dada, mama, and chew.
Gnaw the books, gnaw the toys, gnaw the shoes,
gnaw the night. Leave the star shape
of toothmarks on blocks, table corners,
rubber safety bumpers. Leave all raw
and teetering. I stop breastfeeding
because you consider it a huge joke.
What is this ridiculous pink-brown thing
shoved in your face? You howl laughter.
A game of hide-and-seek or peekaboo.
You pluck at nipple, chomp or pinch—deciding.
It’s just as well. You have freed me to drink wine
in rooms with strangers, and talk about writing.
Whole sentences. Alcohol heightens, then dizzy
dives down. One and done—can’t drink like I used to.
Emboldened soon becomes slumbering. Nights away,
work is a word I relearn, its bliss and its blisters.
Little Paper-Gnasher, when you grab me and yeah me:
the allure of the single syllable. I may Tweet and Follow
but when you clutch, I forget the jabber, the sales pitch
of days out in the world; it’s hot air and I’m oldening.
Turn, wobble. Bobble, hobble. Falter, scramble.
To move weight forward little by little. Get better.
The you that you are inches toward something.
The you that you are practices for the day.
For what it means to step away,
upright, alone. You, unfettered fretter.
Edge forward in blanks. Scratch-outs.
Loopy cursive of falling. Each step a revision.
The ground does not care at all what you do.
The sky does not care. Nor the slide,
nor the swings, no matter how they sway
on their chains. The leaves will not clap
when, beneath them, you walk certainly.
But pay no attention to those fickle things.
All they do is wave. Hand-shaped,
they have never once clapped for anyone.
When you learn this, you will learn it in ice,
snow. Unslipping. You will need no approval.
Your magnificent direction. Bee-lining beauty.
Head up. Sure. Shoes like a new song.
2 ½ years
Before he died, Dad said there would be good
and bad years with children: whole seasons of tantrums,
full years of wonder. Time set by emotion. I stop keeping track
of you in terms of months. When strangers ask, I round
up and down: you’re beyond the infancy of counting weeks.
We count streets, GPS our way to playdates. Your needs
are yes-no, all howl-scowl. You shout frog! like it’s a curse,
pronunciation closer to another four-letter word. We call
you dude, buddy, little man. Though at night, baby-like,
you wake and request me in your first language: the squall.
I can still find you through any darkness, hold you
to silence, say: It’s all right, go back to sleep.
Rest will give you energy for tomorrow, for climbing
and running, and all the things that A, B, or C
can stand for. You have so many words now—
elbow apple purple oboe gorilla open owl oops.
How similar they sound, these terms we take for granted.
You love redt, and say the color onj like a New Yorker. But this
is not a time for words. The park is empty and sleeping now,
all your friends are asleep, even the dogs and pigeons.
Head tucked to wing, or snout to tail, they curl into the same
question mark shape that together child and mother make.
My head bowed to you. Look, outside the purple night. Dark, dark.
And so you drift too, in my arms in the chair, until I lay you
back in your small bed, then you turn over and away, say,
Bye! as if you never needed me. Sleep. I leave you
and go back, across two rooms, stretch out in sudden-dawn
light. I dream—images rush at me, wide and bright,
leaping and flickering, close and tall, heightening
senses, turning up sounds—as if I have not slept
or dreamed at all in these years. There are things
we should not forget, like sleep. When it does come,
it’s with a long deep kiss. Like waters parting.
Nothing like the kiss sounds you make in imitation.
Someone should have told me how an uninterrupted
cup of coffee could feel like a sex act—full and warm.
In the morning I put on my running shoes and go.
Though you have your dad, you sometimes cry
like we should not be apart for half an hour, as though
we were still one. I do not take you, even in my mind,
under these trees of music, singing with freedom. I am alone
in the day, in this humid green. Movement of limbs.
I would do anything for you, except trade the air—
its raw catch inside me, or this syrupy sweat, the damp flush
of this hour. The fragrance of summersweet rises
from small bell blossoms, the circular path disappears
behind me. You’re as mine as you’ll ever be.
As much as any human can own another,
I still have you now. But I see you going, getting ahead—
just as you did last week at this exact bend in the track,
fifty paces from me—your happy oblivious back.
You are racing every day, into childhood, into a place
where the sharp, bright voices of kids I don’t know
all seem as if they are calling to you.
Emily Schultz is the co-founder of Joyland Magazine, host of the podcast Truth & Fiction, and creator of the blog Spending the Stephen King Money. She is the author of the novel The Blondes, and the poetry book Songs for the Dancing Chicken. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Bustle, The Walrus, Black Warrior Review, Taddle Creek, and Prairie Schooner. After many years in Toronto, she now lives in Brooklyn.