By the time I brought my son to vacation in Hawai’i, I knew something was wrong. With him, with me, with the world—take your pick. I remember it as perfect; the month we spent lost among the wild sunshine of the deep Pacific. A time outside of time. Our special little bubble of happiness when, for a few weeks that ended far too quickly, everything was okay.
He was a quiet baby. The first thing I ever noticed about him when I saw my son for the first time, was his fatness. He was like a jelly bean. Short and curved and plump. Double chinned, rolls everywhere, a sort of rubbed, reddish hue; he certainly didn’t look like he was born three weeks preterm. But there was his tinny cry, like a kitten’s mew, struggling to sound from lungs three weeks too small, and there was the small hole hidden inside of his heart, a tiny blip of silence on the echocardiogram.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation.
I named him Robin, after the mischievous Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I expected Robin to grow to be an energetic boy, full of pranks and chatter. I expected him to be loud, funny, the kind of guy his father would have been if he hadn’t been what he was instead. A part of me prepared for him to be like his father. No part of me was prepared for his silence.
Autism. The thought shuddered behind everything, even then, before the diagnosis. In Hawai’i, when he finally said his first word at age one and a half, and we all celebrated, it was too gleeful. I had the milestone commemorated as a tattoo: a turtle, for the first and—as it would happen—last word he said. On my hand, where it could never be forgotten or hidden away. Later, I would imagine my body cursed.
* * *
There is a voice echoing itself and it is mine but it is not mine. It comes from my head, but it fills the whole world. It says “but I didn’t do anything,” on loop. A spiral of protest in that voice that is mine but not mine. I am me but I am not me.
I have traveled outside of my body. Returning is a chaos of sensation. There is something in my mouth, crunchy. At the same time I am returning to my teeth, so the thing in my mouth feels like the crunch of my teeth. I am chewing my teeth. I am swallowing my teeth.
Someone is with me. I grip his hand. It is the only thing that feels familiar and I desperately want that hand to stay in mine.
The loop in my head grows hush, then silent.
“Are you dead? Did I kill you?” the man asks. The way that he looms above me, he fills my whole vision. The blue of his eyes is the sky.
I reach for him, not making sense of his words.
The man is sitting on a bench, and I am in the dirt beneath him.
I am beginning to remember how to breathe.
He scrambles upright. He is leaving. I beg him to stay.
He hesitates, and my vision expands. He and I are the only people around. His bike is a tangle of wheels and frame toppled on the ground. There is a shed. A bench, and the dirt where I find myself after my strange absence. We are behind a house. The house has an empty feeling about it.
I beg the man to stay. He seems anxious. He is pacing. I don’t know what is wrong with him, but I know that his hand is the thing that brought me back to life. I still don’t know where I am. To be alone now would be terrifying. I beg the man to stay, and he listens.
It will take a few more breaths before I remember that the man is my boyfriend, and that he has just strangled me to the point of seizure.
* * *
“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” announced my therapist, her voice bringing me back to the room. My new diagnosis. She said it like a revelation. Like I hadn’t already been living every day in a body tarnished by trauma.
“I know,” I responded. My voice dull. My face blank. My body an anonymous curvature. In the eyes of the world, flat affect is a form of invisibility. In a traumatized body, it is a kind of screaming.
I was screaming at my therapist and she didn’t hear a thing. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that I didn’t go back.
Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.
After the hearing tests, the ear tubes, the cardiograms, the nutritional assessments, the rooms full of toys with big observational windows and faceless doctors on the other side; after my son’s diagnosis, a regime was set for him. He needed routine. He needed intensive therapy. He was accepted to a special needs daycare. He began occupational and speech therapy. My PTSD worsened. Day by day, my heart broke a little more.
Before the diagnoses, my son and I traveled to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New York, New Jersey, Hawai’i. I idolized the friend of a friend, a long-haired mother who traveled the world, taking a new lover with each location. I remember listening, infatuated as she recounted eating magic mushrooms while her infant son was strapped to her chest.
“It was like he was back inside of me,” she said, “like I was pregnant again.” She waded into the sea. It was beautiful.
I wanted to travel the world, commune with nature, take lovers, eat psychedelics, swim in every ocean of the world. Live free. The diagnoses were like shackles, chaining me to a life I never wanted. On one arm, PTSD; on the other, autism.
Single mom. Working Mom. Stay-at-home mom. Student mom. Autism Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. I tried each one and none fit the way I wanted it to. Manufactured lives. Disconnected lives. Lives tailored to other people’s desires. Lives shaped by the hands of a man long gone.
* * *
I leave Boston after I try to kill myself. My teachers let me finish my classes online, so I am able to keep my grades. As I walk the halls of my BFA program for the last time, past the ridiculous picture of Henry Winkler that hangs alone on some hallway wall, I tell myself I will be back. I know I am lying.
After the springtime snow and endless grey sludge of Boston, Seattle is a glory of greenery. I want so much to revel in it—to realize the paradise of my homecoming deep in my body; to feel the precious magical connection to nature and blossoming that those of us from the Pacific Northwest are supposed to feel when we return from being away.
Instead I feel lonely. I collect strange hairs from my boyfriend’s bedding, make alters of my palms and mourn them when he isn’t looking. I imagine the impossible beauty of the women who possess these hairs. One day, when I dare to ask him about the curly black one that reminds me of his best friend’s girlfriend, he tells me he will leave me if I don’t stop taking my birth control. There is nothing more to say about that, except that I am nineteen and in love with a man who is not in love with me.
Maybe we conceive our son on the night maggots worm through the floorboards, rising from some unknown putrefaction beneath the house where my boyfriend rents his basement apartment—or maybe it happens the day he rapes me and drags me across the floor by my hair, dumping me next to a pile of laundry. Or maybe it happens on one of the many times when we just have sex, the way lovers do. What is certain, is that when I say the word “abortion,” he holds me, hands to my throat, and threatens to kill me if I kill his child.
Yet even that is uncertain—the report I give to the police that day says he bit me, then kicked me, before making the threat. The bite mark is noted by the officer. There is no mention of hands to my neck or body pressed to the wall the way I so clearly remember years later.
* * *
Domestic Violence Survivor. That label fit, whether I wanted it to or not.
I hated that word: Survivor. I hated the strength of it, and the image it brought to my mind. A world-weary woman standing at the peak of a cliff, her face and body battered, her hands rough like a man’s. Arms akimbo. Jaw set. Eyes firm and mirthless. Her hair whipping in the wind, or sometimes it is braided like a Viking’s. Behind her the sea foams, black as poison. When she walks, the earth trembles—for she is a Survivor, and nothing like me at all.
I felt safer as a victim. As a victim, I was allowed to feel small and sad. As a victim, I could curl in my bed for days. As a victim, I got to behave like the words “weep,” and “maiden,” and “fragile,” which was how I felt. But my motherhood did not leave space for my victimhood. As my son grew, and with him his silence, I began to feel my motherhood left no space for me at all.
You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.
My son’s silence became a dirge. In it I heard the absence of the words he would never say, and the life together we would never have.
“I love you mom,” our feet padding across the white sand beaches of Cuba, our ancestral home.
“Mom I’m cold,” so I tighten his coat as we gaze up at Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
“Mom, I’m happy,” as we watch the Aurora Borealis dance their colors across the Icelandic horizon.
And living next to these phantoms of a life that would never be, my terrible cacophony of memory.
* * *
We are on the bed in my room at my mom’s apartment, where I live. I have not yet written my application to Emerson, which means I am still very young. The bed has a headboard with shelves. I will use it to my advantage when I have to lie about my bruises. I will say that I stacked too many things on it.
“Like an idiot,” I will add—I have to insult myself.
I will say that all my many things fell on me, bruising me. “The bed was moving a lot,” I will smirk as I say it. I want my life to look sexy and fun.
But before I have to tell the lie, my boyfriend is on top of me, half crouched, knees splayed around my hips, crotch pressed into my belly. He smells like sun-warmed blue jeans and armpit stink, which I like. He is angry. I don’t know why. I never know why he is so angry. His anger is omnipotent. It touches everything. If he is in the mood to be angry there is not a thing in this world that will keep him from it.
His hands imprint themselves in my memory. The knob of his knuckles, the splotches of red across the tops of them. His long fingers. His crime-toughened skin; a different texture than a working man’s hands, but just as rough.
This time when he strangles me, he lets go before the familiar darkness comes.
This time, I can feel the seizure overtake me.
My limbs float upward, like in that game I used to play with my friends when I was a little girl, where we would press our arms against a door frame—hard, as long as we could bear it—and when we walked out they would lift up like balloons. I feel my body shake. A motion at once both violent, jerky, and also smooth. A motion without a thought behind it. It is my body moving, but I have no control to stop it. Me, but not me.
The seizure ends. The oxygen is already flowing back. My senses are clearing. I am gaining sharpness too fast. I know I have been strangled. I know who did it. I know that he is still on top of me.
* * *
The first time my son had a night terror, I heard his shriek from the bedroom. It was sudden, howling, and once it started, it did not stop. I watched his body writhe in the bed, unresponsive to my touch, my voice, anything. A sound so loud it wracked his entire frame, and yet completely indecipherable. Another louder form of silence.
I carried him as he screamed and struggled against me. I laid him out on the living room floor. I stared as his body lifted and contorted like a thing possessed. Not once did his eyes open. Not once did he say a word. He screamed until dawn. The sound bounced off the walls of my apartment, stitching them together, bringing them slowly down around us.
As the horizon lengthened pinkly out the window, he finally crawled into my lap, rested his head against my chest, and slept.
Later, I would learn that night terrors result from disorder. When a child with certain sensitivities does not follow a strict bedtime routine, his brain function alters and the result is violent sleep disturbances that are worsened by even the most affectionate touch. Later, I would learn that my son was possessed by my own disorganization, a side-effect of my diagnosis.
But that morning, when he lay against my breast, his brow damp with sweat, his face suddenly peaceful, I felt that I was sitting at the precipice of a great and terrible ending. The end of time, the dying of the sun, or maybe only the last moments of my own happiness. The room, which moments ago had been filled with my child’s screams, now seemed crowded by silence. It was this same silence that was suffocating me, day in and day out, and that now pressed upon me with the full weight of the knowledge that it would always be this way.
* * *
When I loved my boyfriend, it was a love like terror. I was desperate. I was searching. I would interrogate the trees about his intentions and imagine answers out of wind currents. My love for him was rabid, competitive; a force stronger than any truth because it did not rely on truth for its sustenance.
But when my son was born, love gained new meaning. My love for my son was at once soft, gentle; a blanket of a feeling that I could nuzzle into, and also forceful, raging; something akin to the interlocking of wind and ocean.
One night, I awoke to the sound of my infant son crying in his bassinet. I walked to the living room, where he had been sleeping, lifted him, and sat down on the couch to breastfeed him back to sleep. It worked. My son, who three years later would be diagnosed with autism, was a gentle baby, easily comforted as long as he had access to Mama, and able to sleep through almost anything. I decided to stay up and watch TV.
My boyfriend didn’t like that. He began to yell from the bedroom, demanding that I return.
“Come back, I can’t sleep without you,” he shouted.
I ignored him.
I barely registered that he was in the room with me until he was on top of me, hands around my neck. He strangled me while I held our baby. He strangled me until I could no longer hold our baby. Our son fell to the floor. After my boyfriend’s hands released my throat and my consciousness began to return, I spotted my boy, sitting upright on his chubby bottom, blinking away the sleep.
“Where’s the baby?” My boyfriend shouted, stomping nearer to my son with each iteration. “The baby’s dead!” He kept repeating those words, louder and louder, ignoring me as I tried to warn him that our baby was under his feet. I grabbed for my son but his father’s legs were always in my way.
When I have nightmares about that night, I don’t re-experience the yelling, or the strangulation—just that forest of long, naked legs stomping endlessly while my son waits for me on the other side, unseen and unheard.
When my son turned two, I sent him to live with my family. People who could implement a routine, drive him to his many therapies, and coax the night terrors out of him for good. It was, like so many things in my life, something I was able, but not allowed, to do. When your child has non-verbal autism, there are rules. You are not allowed to grieve the words he will never say. You are not allowed to mourn the independent adult he can’t become. You are only supposed to celebrate his uniqueness, his beauty, the small miracle of his latest accomplishment. You are not allowed to think of him as a burden. You are not allowed to say you didn’t ask for this. You are not allowed to need all the things he needs too. You are not allowed to not be able to give them to him.
I remember a day, shortly before my boyfriend left forever, when the three of us went walking to the beach. It was one of those grey, windswept beaches that film directors like to use as establishing shots. The kind of beach where you might find crabs or collect small perfect shells that break in your pockets before you reach home. At the beach, my boyfriend lifted the baby from my sling. He cradled my son to his chest. He pulled me to him and asked a stranger to take a picture of us, the ocean foaming in the background. In the picture he is tall and slim and handsome. He holds our baby and smiles. My hair is stringy and scattered across my face like a net or a web newly torn. My body, still inflated from pregnancy, looks as though it might crumple into itself.
“You’re such a great father,” the stranger told my abuser when she handed back the camera.
When my son’s father left for good, everyone agreed it was the best thing. That man—with his anger and his addictions and his enormous self-interest—was in no position to care for an infant.
When I left, everyone agreed I was a Bad Mom. The selfish woman with her anger and her mental illness and her overwhelming need for self-care.
My son was not taken or killed. I gave him away. There are rules about that, too. I am not allowed to say I miss him. I don’t get to say it hurts. I am not allowed to both mourn the mother I could have been, and still not want to want to be her.
For Bad Moms like me, our lost children can only exist as silence.