On this first Mother’s Day after the loss of her son Ronan, Emily Rapp ponders what it truly means to be a mother.
“He was the son of his son—he was here, he was left behind.” – Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
In preparation for this upcoming Mother’s Day, I’ve been reading a book about the tightrope walker who, in 1974, illegally, with the help of his friends and under the cover of night, slung a wire between the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and walked across it wearing dark tights and special slippers. He bounced, he twirled, he flaunted. A brazen, beautiful, reckless act. Symbolic. Seemingly impossible and therefore profound. He held a pole that he dipped to one side and then the other. A helicopter disturbed the wind patterns over his head and he did not fall. The poetic agency and metaphorical meat of this image is fleshed out by a series of magnificent linked stories in Colum McCann’s genius novel Let the Great World Spin, a book about freedom and grief, and how these two primal human experiences go together. The image itself is one of beauty and loss—a man balanced between his greatest moment of bodily freedom, just a feather-distance away from his fall, his death, the end.
Two of the characters in this novel, a couple, a father and mother, have lost their son in Vietnam. Reading their fictional stories is helping me understand why the Mother’s Day holiday has been problematic for me (and, I would argue, for many others who have lost a child or lost their mothers) since the day I knew that my son Ronan would die. The mother in McCann’s book is flattened by her grief; she joins a bereaved mothers group that crosses all color and socioeconomic lines, as loss and war always do. She invites women from the Bronx to her Park Avenue apartment where they climb on the roof and watch the walker. One mother half-believes he might be her son, returned to her. The Park Avenue mother is angry with the walker for acting so recklessly with his body. She wants to show the other mothers the childhood bedroom of her son, crack open the photo albums—the photos already fading, the pages creaking apart—and feel the pain of remembering. Instead, this unwelcome distraction of a circus act soon pulls her in as well.
I understand this mother. In San Diego this Christmas I watched a teenage boy stand at the edge of the cliffs near La Jolla. His thin, lithe, living body perched on the cliff; he prepared to do a back flip off the edge, hopefully land in the sand without breaking his neck or anything else. His buddies called out encouragement from below. The woman standing next to me was appalled that he would take such a risk with his body. “My daughter just recovered from a brain tumor,” she said, pulling a sullen-looking girl close to her. “Amazing that he would be so irresponsible.” I didn’t tell her that my son had less than a few months to live, or given the fact that Ronan was a boy given a body that failed him, I wished that he’d felt a moment of such freedom and anticipation.
I lived in the quiet, immobile universe he inhabited and I wished him the privilege of recklessness and risk. I wished he could walk out to any cliff anywhere and make any kind of decision based on desire. The woman and her daughter walked away but I waited to see what would happen. The boy finally jumped, his hair a quick dark wing in the air, landed shakily on his feet, and then fell back softly into the sand, unharmed. His friends roared, smacked his bare back—Yeah, dude. Wicked—and then all the boys ran into the sea. If there was a God, I thought, and God could do visual art, God would paint Ronan into that group and I would walk away and leave him there, let him go. Another ridiculous bargain with God. I walked down the path feeling my heart spread out in my feet; I felt again that slamming finality that once Ronan was gone, I would never see him again.
Now, like the father of the fallen soldier in McCann’s book, I have outlived my son. I am no longer a mother. I have been orphaned by him the way children are often orphaned by their parents. People say oh yes, but you will always be a mother but this is actually not the case. There is no bottle to prepare in the morning, no child to feed or sing to, no presence of his body next to mine at night, no future to consider, no voice to listen for, no hand to hold. Isn’t it a pity that he was your only child, others say, as if he, the Ronan I grew and birthed and knew and loved and lost, could be replaced. As if there could be any possible compensation for a singular, unique being. I’m glad I was Ronan’s mother, but I wonder if that identity will continue to fade. That I will, as I often do, float through the photographs of this boy that was mine, and feel as though he is everywhere and nowhere, part of everything and yet nowhere at all.
We’re all in this precarious position, in the end, mothers or otherwise. What does it mean to be a mother? I think of a line in McCann’s novel, when a young girl realizes that she must change her life. Gather all around the things that you love, I thought, and prepare to lose them. Once you’ve been a mother, you can’t unknow it, but you can miss it, even its risks. And I think I speak for many women who have lost a child on this day designed to celebrate mothers when I say that in the moment of the missing you are balanced on a wire where the stakes are high, not just metaphors, and you feel uncreated, the world before you without your child, time moving on as it does, as it must, as part of you wants it to, but also wishing you could stay in that place where you are shaped so solidly by motherhood, reckless with and rocketed by love.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.