Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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Photo by Takahiro Taguchi. See more of Takahiro's work at

You are sitting up on a gurney when we reach your room in the ER. I have brought your father with me who wasn't good during emergencies when we were married and isn't good now. He's asking me questions I can't answer, such as why did you do this and why did this happen. But he's your father. I imagine you want to see him, maybe more than you want to see me.

The seat belt burn across your chest reminds me of a Miss America banner. You are crying and saying you are sorry. The doctor comes in, looks right at you, and says, "If you had not been wearing your seat belt, you would have gone through the windshield."  I can't stop the vision that comes to me of you with your long, lovely brown hair, flying up and out of the driver's seat, crashing through the windshield, and then heading towards the tree that stopped the car. But you don't stop, you are somehow in one piece as you go through the glass and then when you should hit the tree and crumple, instead you go through the tree as well, the shards of glass brushed off you by the branches, leaving a glitter wake behind you. You disappear, your hair the last I see of you as you cross into the sky and are gone.

Even though you are almost seventeen and not a baby, I have to get up and go over to you to touch you and make sure you have not disappeared into the sky. I kiss your head repeatedly, right on your hair, even while the doctor is speaking to you. He is talking to you as if you are a grown-up and can be trusted to take in the facts of your broken clavicle and weigh the benefits of OxyContin versus Tramadol. He is acting as if you have agency when clearly you should not, having taken my car and without my permission driven it to Winston-Salem in the dark of night to visit with a friend from camp, a hundred miles beyond where we thought you were that evening and long past the hour when your two-month-old provisional driver's license would permit you to drive. Your license is so new the lamination is still crisp. There's not been enough time for it to be even slightly curved from being wedged in your back jeans pocket and sat on at a concert or crammed into your school bag and bent by your biology book.

Much of this is new. Your older brother did not present me with dire situations. He didn't throw a party at my house while I was in another state, leaving the scum of a hundred sets of footprints on my floor, pot debris in the sink, unopened condoms in the dining room, and empties under the beds. Until you turned sixteen, I thought I had produced well-behaved children who did not smoke weed, who followed the rules, and who cared about school. But your open and notorious rebellions have changed that. I can't pretend all is well.  At stoplights, in the shower, before I fall to sleep, I practice what to say to you. My efforts mostly fail. During one fight you go outside in the bitter cold wearing shorts and a t-shirt. You sit on our front steps and scream wordlessly. Peering through the window at you, I vacillate between stress over whether the neighbors can hear you, my impulse to take a blanket out to you and wrap you up in it, and my desire to sit down and scream along with you.

The newness of these battles has worn off. I tiptoe around you. Some days if I am heading towards the kitchen and I hear you making coffee, I turn around and walk as silently as I can back up the stairs to my room. Other days I seek you out and hug you more than once before I go to bed, longer and harder than I have in the past, trying to tell you I love you without saying it. Because if I say it, I risk your not saying it, or your saying it perfunctorily, or your saying it earnestly in a way that breaks my heart over the pain we cause each other. Even the simplest of things has become a conundrum.

As I drive the three of us home from the ER, leaving the totaled car in Winston-Salem, I think about your expedition that night, how you got on Highway 40 which we had forbidden you to do until you had more experience, how you must have navigated the speeding cars and the four lanes, how you exited, and how on the country road you missed the deer and hit the tree. Again I see you flying through the windshield, and I almost say out loud, "Next time, hit the deer," but I decide I am too tired and you are on drugs, the kind to which half of America is addicted. I save the deer wisdom for later. You are asleep in the backseat, anyway. I whisper to your father, "I don't want her on OxyContin," and he doesn't argue. The next day I call my doctor brother who tells me to get a prescription for Tramadol instead, and I do.

At 4:30 a.m. we arrive back at your dad's house because it's his week to have you. I kiss your head again before you go inside. "I'm so sorry about the car, Mom," you say over your shoulder. In the weeks that follow, I rearrange my work schedule and drive you everywhere.  We see an orthopedist who shows us an x-ray which impresses her (though not in a good way). She describes the space in your clavicle as a bad Z break that will not heal straight. She mentions we could consider surgery later if you do not like the way your bone looks when it heals. You listen. You shake your head no when she suggests surgery. I shake my head in time with yours. I am relieved that despite your attention to fashion and your careful application of make-up, you are not so concerned about aesthetics that you would risk anesthesia and pain for a flat collarbone.

Your father and I discuss what to do. We ground you for a month, not because you wrecked the car, but because you lied about where you were and because you ignored the time restrictions of your license. As usual I am the one to deliver the decision of your punishment. You don't fight me on it, a wise choice. I tell you to use the time to study for the ACT. You don't roll your eyes. You send me photos of your computer screen after every practice test and over the weeks your score goes up. You write your college essay about the wreck. In it you tell the college admissions folks your anger escaped through the break in your clavicle, making you feel connected to the world in a way you didn't before. I am not sure whether I am more surprised by the quality of the essay or by the revelations themselves. I begin to hope the accident has wrought a change in you.

Two months after the accident, on a weekend when you are supposed to be staying with me, I let you go to the music festival at Shakori Hills, far out in the country. I tell you not to drink and that you can't take the replacement car I got you – a twenty-year-old Honda that isn't worth much. You get a ride with your friend Miriam who is a year older than you and who, according to you, doesn't smoke weed. I agree to let you camp overnight on the condition you text me every eight hours and leave the Find My iPhone feature turned on. I believe you deserve some freedom because you have done all I could hope for since the accident. You took the official ACT and raised your score two points. You got a job after school without my suggesting it. I have risked saying, "I love you," more often, and you have said it back as if you mean it.

From the festival you text me at the right times and you say it's beautiful there. You seem happy but you tell me you have decided you want to come home and sleep in your bed. I text back that I will be glad to see you.

The lights in the front room are dim when you come in lugging your backpack over your good arm. "How do you like my hair?" you say, twirling in a circle, "I got Miriam to dye it."

I can see your hair spinning around you, but I can't make out the color in the darkness of the room. I close my eyes for a moment remembering the color of your hair, chocolate mixed with a short pour of red zinger tea. "I can’t really see it in this light," I say.

You flip the light switch. I brace myself and look at you.

Your hair, or rather the bottom half of it, is purple. Crown to chin it remains chocolate red zinger. I ask you to turn so I can see the back. The demarcation between the purple and the brown glares harsh and uneven.

"Well, what do you think?" you ask. When I hesitate, you add, "It will wash out after a month. I read the box. And I'll get Miriam to fix the back."

I want to say, "Why did you do this? Why did this happen?" but I stop myself. I know better than to ask unanswerable questions. It's not a permanent piercing or a tattoo, both of which would have required my signature. I say, "That's a really lovely shade of purple. It reminds me of . . ." I trail off, stumbling for a good comparison. "It reminds me of Easter eggs and pansies." I lower the heat of my judgment and smile at you. I am so glad you made it safely home.

I stand up and place one hand on your good shoulder and one on your not-so-good shoulder. I look you in the eye and say, "Tell you what. Instead of getting Miriam to fix the back, why don't we go to a stylist and get it done right?"

"Seriously? That would be great, Mom."

"Seriously," I answer. "Love you," I add.

I don't put the "I" in front of it because I don't want to sound too serious. Not everything is serious. Your hair is purple but you are standing in front of me, alive and breathing. You will sleep in your bed tonight and I know there are not many more nights when you will. I cannot keep you tied to me but as best I can, I will smooth out the ground in front of you. And maybe then you will find your own way of tethering yourself to the earth, your purple hair flying behind you as you go.

Sarah E. Tillman is an attorney and nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Scrimshander Books, and Fifty Word Stories online.  She has a son and a daughter and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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