Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Sink

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Photo by Kate Ristau

The kitchen sink in the house where I grew up was big and white. I still remember how much my mom loved it when she first saw it. She called it a farmhouse sink–even though we weren't on the farm anymore.

"It's so deep," she said. "Don't you love it?"

I was in third grade. The only thing I loved was Doritos. But she was smiling, and that was good.


I learned to love that sink for the sheer number of dishes it could hold before we had to surrender and finally wash them. Maybe that's what Mom meant.

The morning before Rowan's surgery, I emptied our kitchen sink. It's the same faded white as the one that made my mom swoon, but much smaller, with a divider in between. One half is always full of dirty dishes.

I pushed the dishes into the dishwasher that morning. I didn't scrub the egg off the bowl–I just dumped in the soap, and pushed start. The egg would be there when we came back, but at least it would be clean egg.

I wouldn't unload that dishwasher for seven more days.


In the middle of his surgery, when his heart wasn't beating, I stood at the sink in the bathroom by the waiting room. I washed my hands, carefully removing the germs. It was the first time I had left my purple plastic chair. I reached for a towel and they were stuck inside the dispenser. I hit the hard plastic, spun the wheel, and wrenched one out. Dried my hands, carefully and methodically. Sanitized them. Clenched my teeth against the anger and the weight, then pushed the feeling down, swallowed it whole, and went back to my seat. I waited, and thought about every night before that: the negotiation at the bathroom sink. The predictable scene where I told him to brush his teeth, and he wound up on the bed, wriggling and whining.

"I'm too tired," he would say. I'd give him the look that turns claims into mumbles. "I already brushed them," he'd mumble.

"And my face is made of cotton candy," I'd reply. "Brush your teeth."

He'd grumble to the pedestal, pull the toothpaste from the drawer beside it, and slather his toothbrush with pink goo. He always spits at the very top of the sink. That's how I know he brushed them–the splash of color sliding down the porcelain.


After the surgery, when they first took us back to see him, my feet stuck for a second to the floor outside room 11, his room. I forgot what to do as a feeling rushed up that I couldn't hold, couldn't contain, couldn't explain. Pain and anger and joy and sadness and so much love I couldn't breathe–then the bottom dropped out, and I walked in, leaving something of myself on the other side of that door.

I sat down on the side of his bed. He was pale, no–white. The color completely drained from his face. Eyes shut; tube taped over his mouth. I ran my hand over his forehead, pushing back his hair. His forehead was cool. I wished it was warm. He was asleep, but not really asleep. I wished for him to be awake. He was under, somewhere I couldn't go. I wanted him back. He'd already been gone too long.

The air traveled down the tube into his mouth, then whooshed back out again. His chest moved up and down. He was alive. The breath pushed into him.

"He'll come back up soon enough," the nurse said. "Some kids just take longer to wake up from the anesthesia."

They weren't his own breaths yet.

"When he wakes up," the nurse said, "it's going to be hard. Confusing. He won't know what's happening. Just talk to him."

She left the room again. She didn't mention how wild his eyes would be. How the tears would slip down his cheeks. How he'd wake up, and we'd whisper to him that it was all right, that Mommy and Daddy are here, and then he'd slip back to sleep again.

I held his upper arm–that one patch of free skin. Our bodies, normally leaning into each other, were unfamiliar. I was afraid to touch him–didn't know how to hold him. So many tubes, cords, and that white bandage slicing across his chest.

The nurse came back in to check his vitals. "He'll wake up again soon. Do you two need anything?"

We shook our heads. We just needed him.

Did our bodies matter? Did they even exist? I ate a handful of nuts the day of his surgery. I snuck them into my mouth while I sat in my bed at home and put on my shoes. I ate them because I knew I wouldn't be able to eat anything later. Peanuts. They were salty. Dry.


Rowan woke up, eyes spinning. I whispered in his ear. Dad held his hand. Later, he got sick, and I grabbed a white towel to wipe him down. Speaking quietly, reassuringly, I ordered other people around the room like I was their commander leading the charge, or maybe a whirlpool, sucking everything into my vortex of screw this metaphor and just get me exactly what I need to help my son.

The next two days were a series of setbacks and triumphs. Those are the big picture words we didn't use. We use them now. Then, in those moments, we used words like valves, clots, stitches, glue and morphine. Complications, IVs, shots, and applesauce, along with fluid in his chest cavity and so many possible futures balanced on the edge of his hospital bed. His feet dangled toward the floor.

"We'll take this slow," his physical therapist said.

A nurse gathered his cords behind him, and still another typed at the computer. This was an event. They were ready. "We just need to make it to the bathroom. When we get there, you'll brush your teeth. Maybe we'll comb your hair, too. Doesn't that sound nice?"

I waited for the complaint, the joke. The sassy response. He'd tell her he had already brushed his teeth, just like he told me every night.

"Where's my toothbrush?" he said instead.

His therapist unhooked his IV, and he stared down at the bandages on his hand.

"It's on the counter," I said.

I stepped back, and then he was on his feet. He shuffled across the tile. Chest caved, slouching forward, he stepped across the threshold into the tiny bathroom.

I watched as she helped him with the toothpaste lid. Watched as he held her hand over the toothbrush handle and brushed slowly, thoroughly; brushed away the days he couldn't remember, brushed away the days I will never forget, and then spat into the tiny sink.


Kate Ristau is the author of the middle grade series, Clockbreakers, and the young adult series, Shadow Girl. In her ideal world, magic and myth combine to create memorable stories with unforgettable characters. Until she finds that world, she’ll live in Oregon with her husband, her son, and her dog.

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Beautifully written. Thank you. And thank god he's okay.
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