This Stranger, My Son

An excerpt from her memoir, Without a Map

He drives a little bronze car. He drives slowly along my dirt road. He glances at me quickly as I stand waiting on the steps. I can see blond hair, curls. He turns off the car. He reaches for something, gets out, looks at me, and never takes his eyes off me again. He shoulders a soft old book bag and walks slowly toward me. This is my son, the son I am meeting for the first time, meeting on this warm fall day after 21 years of waiting. He is thin, graceful as he walks toward me waiting for him in the sudden sun. He is not a baby. He is not a child. He is a young man, and he walks toward me while I wait. He wears jeans and a sweater striped around his chest. We are in a slow-motion film. Waiting. Receiving.

His feet are in old loafers. He comes toward me, his feet crunching on the stone path in the silence that joins us. Our eyes draw us together, lead him to me, a force joining us, a connection fierce and overwhelming as he slowly comes along the path. His teeth are brilliant white; there is a space. My father has a space like that. I step toward him. Every day for all these years I have played this scene in my mind. I have never known what to do. I do not know now. I think I must be smiling. I think I am breaking, breaking with joy, with love, with grief because here he is a grown young man, here I am middle-aged, all the years gone forever and we know it in this moment more than ever before. I reach for him and hold him in to me, a stranger, my son, this beautiful, radiant terrified son.

It is ten o'clock, October 18, 1987. The leaves in the trees glow red and gold in the sun. We are very shy together, and have no idea how to do this. We walk without talking to the railing of the porch and stand, three feet between us, facing the river, looking out over the sheep in the pasture, along the coast of Maine. We do not speak. I cannot find the question which will start our life together. I want to ask, Will you forgive me? Have you felt my love calling to you every day? Are you healthy? Are you happy? Have you been loved? Where have you lived while I loved you? Have you felt this binding cord between us? What did you do each day for 21 years? Will you forgive me?

Instead, I ask, "Do you like UNH?"

"Yes," he says, his first word. His voice is soft and deep.

"What year are you?"

"Well, I'm working my way through so I have another year."

"Did you have trouble finding my house?"

"No. No trouble."

His body is taut, as if he is ready to run or to fight something off. But his face is open, his eyes enormous, blue, set wide apart. He has a scar across his chin. His nose has been broken. He is very serious, like a boy who has known a lot of sadness. He turns to me and smiles suddenly. He has deep dimples. My brother. His uncle has these dimples. We turn to the ocean again in overwhelmed silence.

"Do you want to go for a walk?" I ask. Joy and the old sorrow tangle in wild confusion.

We walk down the little dirt road to the river. I feel as if I am walking next to myself, step for step, cell for cell. I want to tell him I love him.

"This is the owl tree," I say. "Alex and Ben* are my sons. Your brothers." I see him tense for just a moment. "They find owl pellets here, with tiny teeth and fur and bits of bone." He says, "My mother let me play hooky to go fishing with her." My mother. I breathe. Of course. Two mothers.

We sit on an old bench above the undulating seaweed. We start slowly, searching for words, for a place to start. Then we speak quickly, saying every thought that comes, our conversation leaping as we try to reconstruct the lost years. I know he will drive away that afternoon, and I don't know if he will ever come again. He must wonder if I will want him to.

"I used to walk along the train tracks at the bottom of the pasture, all the way to school," he says. His school, tracks, a pasture: I frantically try to paint the picture of his childhood. "My mother and I grew the best tomato plants in town. People drove all the way out to the farm to buy them."

"Alex wants to be on the baseball team," I say. "I quit college," I say. The sun glints gold on the water, warming us as we fight the current of sorrow running between us. Sometimes, we find ourselves laughing. Twice, he says, and twice I say, "I've never told anyone this before... ."

We climb back up the hill, and I show him the downstairs of my little house. "This is the living room. This is the kitchen where I like to cook a lot of food for my family. Do you want to see your brothers' rooms?" "Yes," he says quietly, as if it is a trial he is ready to face.

He holds back, glancing quickly into their sunny rooms, at their toys and books, at his brothers' lives, their lives here with me where they are loved, safe, not given away. We go back down to the kitchen and eat tuna sandwiches across from each other. The joy we feel right at this minute lies like a shimmering pond within our grief, the landscape of our lives.

"Would you like me to tell you about your father?" His hands stop midair, a picture of our first day I will never forget, the image of his powerful hunger to belong. "You look like him," I say gently. "He's Italian. He lives in Massachusetts. I was sixteen, and he was a senior at Boston College. We met at Hampton Beach. His name is Anthony." I watch him struggle to understand what this information means, to integrate it into his 21-year-old identity. "It doesn't matter anyway," is all he says.

We hug each other silently at his car, trying to prepare for whatever will happen next. He drives back down the road. I can hear his car moving away long after I have lost sight of it. The days of the following week roil tumultuously around every word he has said in those sunny hours, every gesture, his glance, a movement of his hand. I do not sleep. A letter comes on Friday, asking if he can come again, maybe on Sunday.

The call had come in May.

"Hello," she had said. "My name is Janet Larsen. I work with the New Hampshire courts. I want you to sit down. Your son is looking for you." I had been hoping for this call for 21 years, and it came so quietly into an ordinary spring day. "We will take this very slowly," she said. "This can cause enormous problems for both the child and the birth mother."

"But I'm ready now. I've been waiting for years."

"You will write letters for a while, through me. It is devastating to the child to experience a second abandonment."

"I would never abandon him."

"But you did."

"I could never abandon him again."

"But it happens a lot," she said.

"Where is he?"

"I can't tell you that yet."

"Can you tell me his name?"

I felt myself separate from my voice. Suspended time. A hush, inside me, in the air I breathed.

"His name," she said, "is Paul." This sound, this soft little sound, was electric. Twenty-one years and my son had a name. A name! Paul. I could hold this tiny word. I could hold Paul. My son had a name. My son was named Paul.

"Your son," Janet told me, "is extraordinary. Paul is a spectacular young man."

* Names in Hall's memoir have been changed to protect privacy.

Page: 1 2 3 Next >

 Easy to print version

blog comments powered by Disqus