Can a mother be a comrade?

It’s dawn and the sky rattles with light though it’s still. I’m fumbling for coffee and letting Faye eat Cheerios off the kitchen floor. We talk to each other in babbled words that she invents and loves and I try to repeat. Some part of me is full of love and some part of me is sad, possibly the same part.

There’s something sad about reproduction. It can seem like a glorious hiatus in loss.

I’m in my trapped recollections. It was long ago and I was a small child. It was a big clattering fragrant day with too many sparkles and too many mountains tumbling over the fishscales of a river. I went to play in a little stream that emptied into the river, and splashing among the pebbles a current caught me, much stronger than I had expected, swept me sideways into a deep hidden pool, the water was smooth, cold, keeping me held and carrying me out towards the rocket gurgles of the big river, and as I was swept I soon went under, and the lips of the water were above me with so many sparkles, pebbles of the sky peering down, and I don’t even know if I struggled much, or at all. I got a little deeper down underwater and further swept — suddenly writing this, I am still afraid — the fear can get so buried, so scattered, with hidden currents like the river — and my mother appeared suddenly. She caught me, dove down in the stream, saved me from being washed away into the sparkles and being cold and drowned.

In later years, I was always afraid to swim.

You can save your child’s life — it feels like we do this daily — but how can you understand their fear? You can satisfy their needs, but you only partly know the unconscious landscape that grows up around them. Caretaking can carry you closer to that unreachable thing somewhere within the Other: is it terror, or a desperate hope for transformation? A family can feel like this: a clattering valley of hopes and dark currents, of saving and forgetting.

I used to be a boy and now I’ve become a Shaba, which is a word Claude invented for me as a nonbinary parent. I embraced it. I needed it. Today Faye — now 17 months — is tottering around wearing a stethoscope around her neck and fiddling with a marker, still speaking her private language, Awo bo boo, ah hey bya bang go, yay whew we. It’s the height of Covid (or is the worst yet to come?), and Claude tells me how he hates shots, doesn’t want a vaccine ever, hates doctors and dentists, wants to hit all the doctors and break their houses, and hates me, if I take him to get shots. I remind him that yesterday, he said he did not want to fight with me so much. Pensively, he agrees. He rises and activates a plastic toy that plays canned music. The baby dances to it gaily, arms like a windmill, hips like a seesaw. All reproduction is in spite of something, a dance to the canned music of loss.

Now I’m remembering my dad’s funeral and I’m crying as I write, as if it were cathartic for me to get swept along by these memories of past tears. In the Covid moment, it’s often better to relive than to live. A week after he died, my dad was buried in a “natural burial meadow” outside Cardiff, in Wales: an eco-friendly deathplace without grave markers where sheep grazed occasionally. Many of my dad’s friends belonged to the Cardiff Reds Choir, who went around town singing non-denominational radical songs, and suddenly before the funeral ceremony, they began to sing:

Because we all are comrades, wherever we may be,

One union shall unite us, forever proud and free.

No fascist shall defeat us; no nation strike us down,

All those who toil shall greet us

the whole wide world around.

My comrades are all others, forever hand in hand.

Wherever people struggle, there is my native land. 

My comrade’s fears are my fears,

I shall not let them down.

My comrade’s tears are my tears,

the whole wide world around...

I loved that song, the closest thing to a communist spiritual. (My father was a socialist, did I mention?) They had rewritten it, I later learned, to be less patriarchal, since the original version began Because all men are brothers… But now I’m no longer sure about the harmony of loss that the song evokes. Are my tears really those of my comrades? My heart is in my throat while my kids play with blocks. Perhaps kids can become comrades by ganging up on the parents. But what do you call a comrade’s mother — an Other? Who can be more Other than a parent? Am I an Other now, too? Why was I socialized not to identify with mothers, but against them?

I came to empathize with my mom’s long care labors later, after I had children. When I turned 30, my mom showed up to surprise me on my birthday. She delivered a box of my childhood things and stayed with us a day or two. When she left, I was suddenly heartbroken, struck by an unprecedented intuition that my mom was finite, that one day she would vanish, would no longer be there. It was a bitter thought, and I remember the loneliness that set in as the evening went on, since we lived far apart, and always had since I had grown up.

Now it’s still morning at our house and my kids and I are eating together. Childcare alternates between the dire, the boring and the surreal. “Try and make a hole in your stomach, so you can touch the challah in your stomach,” Claude says. “Ewww,” I say, which he construed as high praise and encouragement. “Make a hole in your throat so you can touch it [i.e. your food] in your throat. Make a hole in your eyeball so you can touch your eyeball. Make a hole in your bones so you can touch your bones.” He laughs uproariously and I jot it all down; I read it back to him and we laugh. “That’s really funny,” he editorializes, “it makes us laugh a lot.” Already he forgets that he threatened to hate me an hour earlier. I wish we didn’t live in this atmosphere of permanent turmoil, of love and hate like a washing machine spin cycle. I had a bad moment once when I realized that just as I had faced my father dying, so too might Claude have to face me dying, and I felt so sad for Claude to think that he would have to suffer through that sort of big loss. Then the feeling passed. I’m crying, I’m fine, really, I’m fine, crying is fine. All comrades are ephemeral, but their love can save you from drowning.

One year, my mom wished me “Happy Mother’s Day,” telling me that all caretakers are mothers. Maybe mothers can be my comrades after all. My comrades are all others: it’s been a harder thought for me than I would have guessed, a thought that has followed me home.

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