*Image: “Blue Hair” by Catherine Hall, 12×9, encaustic on canvas
The First Task of Letting Go
By Christine Linn
I. Corporeality of action. The first task of letting go: righting bodies.
If I found you, I would lift your one hundred and forty-two pounds of gangle easily. I would lift those one hundred and forty-two pounds of boy-smell t-shirts, of greasy skin and video game binges, the weight and resonance of your deep voice that hasn’t yet aligned, your easy laugh and unfinished brain, without strain. It would be effortless, your weight negated because it came from me, from my body. Your weight is me. This is the stuff of mothers.
I would lift your one hundred and forty-two pounds, if I found you. I would lift you easily, with one hand. I would need my other hand to free you. I would hold your too big feet in the palm of one hand, in the hand that is your mother’s hand, in my hand, so that I could untie the belt that you had fastened into a noose with the other hand, with your mother’s other hand. I would use these hands. I would use these hands to free you from that choice. My hands. You would be free from it. My child’s hanging body cannot be weighed with the scales of man, only of me. Measured only by the weight I can carry and I will always be strong enough to carry all of you.
I would slide your body balanced down along mine until your feet were solid on the floor in the hallway like they should have been. I would ground you back to the earth, balanced on my body. Freeing you is an autonomic function now, like breathing, like blood filling the chambers of my heart: diastole, systole, untying knots, sliding your body to the ground. I would slide you to the ground and go down with you. I would act as though there was a choice. As though there were other ways for you to exist now that you were gone. As if my dead boy, propped against my own body, could exist in that state now. I would think that maybe this was supposed to happen, maybe it is the natural progression of our life together. As natural as when you started making your own breakfast or showering without my help. Maybe propping your dead body with my own is just one of the many chores of motherhood. I would smile and sigh with the relief of knowing that: This is just what mothers do, they free their sons from nooses.
That first task of letting you go would be simple. I would lift you with my heart. No, that wouldn’t work, that thing would be dust now. I would lift you with my hands, with these hands–your mother’s hands. I would undo your last act, free you from the perversion of suspension. No boy should be disconnected from the earth like that. No boy. No boy should hang from a banister from a belt he’d fashioned into a noose. The first task of letting go would be righting that. No boy should exist in the space between upstairs and downstairs. No boy should die alone there. I would root you back. That first task would be righting bodies. It would be simple. That first task of letting you go would be the easiest, my boy. My sweet boy. You would be back.
I. The first task is ceremony. The first task of letting go: find a ceremony that fits.
I would arrange you there on the floor in the hallway below the stairs. I would fasten golden coins to the belt that you had fastened into a noose to hang yourself from the stairwell and hook it around your waist, where it should have been. Belts are things of teenaged boys, like unruly hair, like eye rolling, like partially inhabited bodies. Those golden coins will pay your way back home.
I would wash your skin with warm tea and honey, try to find a ceremony that fit.
I would circle your body with the sacred artifacts of your life–colored pencils and sheet music, maps and drawings, your phone, crumpled, graded homework and too big handwriting. Your head would be light on my lap, no pull down, no heaviness. I would stroke your coarse hair. I would take in deep lungfuls of your smell and fight off the burn of exhale. Your smell would be my mantra and I would inhale you back to life.
I would light candles for you, let them burn overnight. I would light incense and sage and wave the smoke in disappearing sheets along your body. I would light small star-shaped fires on the floor around you. I would light lavender in great bushels until you couldn’t find the way out. I would catch crickets, perch, songbirds, and spiders and grind them into a paste with my fists. I would mark your face like a warrior. I would tuck those unruly strands behind your ears, dear boy, let me take the liberty of that. I would make symbols in the air with my hands, quick and swooping motions that would end at my heart. My prayers would turn to chants for days and I would rock until movement was sacred. I would find a rhythm that fit.
I would fast until your body shone in white light and the wound that is my body drew straight lines to your form. I would crush cherries and pomegranates into my forehead and hair and let their juices drip down past my cracking lips to stain your ashen lips. I would trace your lips with their color.
I would plant acorns in your eye sockets.
I would make a great feast for you, a feast that arched back through our history, courses of our life: colostrum and breast milk, oatmeal, pasta and tomatoes fresh from the garden, zucchini bread and frosted Christmas cookies. The first task of motherhood is sustenance.
I would shave my head and leave my hair as an oblation. I would leave my scalp, my eyelashes, my tongue too. I would cut huge chunks from my hips and buttocks and place them in wooden bowls. I would watch the flicker of our shadows through the flame of my fat.
I would put flowers in your hands. The first task of letting go is finding beauty, seeing change. I would put flowers in your hands and they would rot there. I would stack fresh flowers on the old ones until you were a mound of dead and dying petals. Please stay. I would forge a mossy river through the hallway and let that cool water take you home. I would go down slow.
I would read to you and sing to you until I could only spit rasps. Until my voice was a husk filled with sand and raw. I would mark the lyrics of your favorite songs on the floorboards in ancient scripts with blood from my throat. I would invent new languages and whisper them to you at dawn.
I would wear bone masks marked with bright colors but keep my eyes gentle so you wouldn’t be afraid, dance high on my toes, in great plunges and twirls. I would beat my breasts, tear my flesh to shreds and pound bruises into my thighs until they burst. I would bind myself with strips of cloth and wait to be taken. I would make myself into an offering.
This is the ceremony of us.
I would lay you down on the floor in the hallway, and lie down next to you just like that night when you were alive, when you woke me up at midnight to talk. That night I held you, surprised at your need for holding because your 14-year-old self had been trying so hard to exist outside of his mother’s care. The night your one hundred and forty-two pounds leaned on me and you knew I could take the weight of it, you knew that as you had grown so had my strength for holding you. This is the thing of children. You knew that I would always be strong enough to carry the whole of you. I knew it too. I thought I knew that one thing. That night when you needed to be heard and held by your mother and you let me hear you and hold you. That night when you got it out of your system for a moment and I made the pop tarts that your grandparents gave to us and we ate them and lay on the kitchen floor. When the giddiness of effusion mixed with the sugary, hot pastries and we devolved into laughter, into silliness, and we launched our bodies across the floor as though it were water. Remember that? We curled into separate balls on the kitchen floor and laughed until we could barely stand it. That night when you needed me and you asked for me and I could be there for you, when we got tired and I hugged you before you went up to bed, I hugged you and told you I am always here. I am still here, sweet boy. I am right here. That night when you didn’t tie your belt into a noose and hang yourself from the banister. Please, that can’t be our ceremony now. That is no ceremony. I am still here, my sweet boy. I am right here. I am paying my respects.
The first task of letting go is to mark it. To mark the way, to make a path. The first task of letting go is ceremony. The first task of motherhood is preparation.
I. Again. The first task of letting go. Souls as sound. The wail of knowing. Paper thin perpetuity. The first task: Sound.
I would open the door and yell your name like I do. I would toss my keys on the table and head up to your room to say hi, assuming sleep, assuming headphones. I would see you hanging there. No. Again.
I would open the door and yell your name like I do. I would toss my keys on the table and head up to your room to say hi, assuming sleep, assuming headphones. I would see the tipped over chair and just know. I would not be able to see you hanging there, I would just know. My body would not allow me to see you hanging there. I can’t ever see you there.
Oh, god. I would see you there.
There would be the smallest flutter, a pin prick in my guts, folding into great heaving wails. First a pin prick, then explosion, like your life born out of me. I would vomit sound as soul, soul as sound. I would crash through that opening, exploding outward, an urgency to find the source, to bring you back. Waves of mourning now, I am enshrined in sound, I am sound fanning out in hot liquid waves. Moans like geysers, straight up through my trunk, weaving those ropes of pain through my ribs, knitting me into solid. Flooding my heart and lungs and throat with the wailing, endless syrup of this grief, the aura of forgetting. I am screams and you are not gone. There is no knowing. I am sound like endless vomit, heaving, sound like my soul rushing out. It is drowning me. Animal pain embodied, now. I am sound, pain. I am sound, moan. I am sound, greedy for possession. I am sound as light, sound expanding ever outward, speeding forward forever now, racing to catch the end of the universe and fold it back for us. I am sound born from bodies, from the grief of bodies. I am sound born from you. I am you. I am nothing now. I am sound as universe, finding every spot that is not filled with something and filling it with my voice: the space between the peach and the pit, the warm dark breath of rot, the chasm between galaxies forming, every single emptiness waiting to be found and filled, cemented and known– I am filling them, knowing them. I am filling those empty spaces, the space that your words, the words you won’t speak now, should have filled. I am filling them with my screams. You still had words left, dear boy. My body would know to purge through that deep, deep moan to make space for taking you back in. I am sound because I cannot be the inadequacies of my body without you. I am sound, searching for any weak spot in my skin, for escape. I am sound intact, unknowing. Grief is a weightless projectile praying for dissonance.
My sound would be holdable and held. But I would have to wake from it holding you. My dead boy. Again.
I. Again. The first task of letting go. This is the first task of letting go: chasms. Build a wall.
If I found you that day, if you were gone, I would never leave that spot.
I would wrap myself around your body to keep you with me.
Ravines would be carved through my chest in great strokes.
The course of grief etching instant canyons.
These wounds of the earth, eons in the making, forged in seconds.
Through my insides, through organs and bone and the meat of me.
Guttural sobs like pungent water. Choking sobs like water. Heaving sobs in great surges, from guts, from bile, electric.
Knowing only outward, the endless syrup of this grief still.
As noise, as need, as want, as no. As please god no. As fingers breaking in fists. As frantic. As animal cornered snarling. As snarling. As danger.
That thick scream, that gushing wave, that muted loss. That drowning loss.
I don’t have it in me to lose you.
I would hold you there, screaming, until my body gave out.
When I could stand, I would build a wall around us from the inside. Bricks molded from the ripe socks of adolescent boys, from crayon drawings and tiny shoes, from stuffed animals and Thomas the Tank Engine. Bricks made from bicycle wheels and used bandaids, pancakes in the shapes of stars and smiling faces, little boy kisses, bony teenaged boy hugs, movie theater popcorn, the sound of sneakers running on the sidewalk, the ache of your first heartbreak, your discarded toothbrushes, outerspace sheets, trombones and report cards. I would slather on mortar forged from my blood mixed with hot chocolate and chicken broth and chamomile tea and ginger ale for when your tummy hurt. I would build us a barricade. I would always keep you with me.
I. The first task of letting go, again: consume.
I would cut you down and we would stay on the hallway floor. I would pretend it was a field and the ceiling was the night sky and we were counting stars. Remember? Your little hand in mine. Remember it. You would rot there with me but it would be okay. You would be okay, my boy. I will make fine thread from my hair to sew your pieces back together. See? I will lace you up with ropes braided from strips of my skin. This is not a losing battle to keep you whole.
I would cut small slices into my arms and envelop your slathering off skin with mother-hugs for days without moving. I would try for fusion, for reunion. I would be so still. I would beg my body to take you back. I would beg my body to bring you back to the source. To take you back. I would drink the sludge of you, eat your fetid organs. I would hold your teeth in small pockets in my cheeks. I would fill my ears and nostrils, my anus and vagina with your hair and fingernails. I would beg my body to keep you here. I would fill the baby clothes from the memory chest with your too big bones.
I. Again. The first task of letting go. Try again. Your boy is gone. The first act of letting go: practical. Non-lyrical. Again.
This is what I would do (if I found you hanging by a belt that you had fastened into a noose, in the hallway): I would hurry to cut you down, to save you. I wouldn’t know how to do it so you didn’t drop, so I didn’t hurt you. It wouldn’t matter because you’re dead now.
Of course it would still matter.
I would try for a heartbeat, for a breath, for a way to bring you back. I would pump your heart with my hands, the manual labor of motherhood is compression and breathing now. The first task of motherhood is urgency for life.
I would beg you to stay. I would scream again. I would cry and scream. I would be spit and snot and hot tears. I would vomit and defecate. Blood would pour from my eyes and womb, from my ears I would release every liquid I held. The first task of motherhood is expulsion.
It would be quiet. After a while it would be quiet. I would stare at your face and wonder that you could have ever existed. I always knew you couldn’t be true. I would hold the image of your eyes looking into my eyes so deep inside of me that it would burn. I would know what that looked like. I would always know what that looked like.
I would tuck you into bed. I would set your alarm clock and lie face up in my bed. I would stare at the ceiling until your alarm sounded. I would blink away each second that you didn’t stir, keeping time with slivers of darkness, until I had no way to keep it back. Mornings would be filled with this: the hope of delusion, the anguish of “Please…please.” I would try again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and
I would prop you at the kitchen table and feed you oatmeal and cinnamon and heavy cream, like when you were a little boy. I would place spoonfuls of it on your tongue and look away while I pushed it down into your throat. I would not allow for stagnation.
I would prop you on the couch. We’d sit in the dark to watch a movie. I would watch you to see if you were watching yet. I would wait for you to watch. Please just watch, please. I would put headphones on your ears and play your favorite songs. I would nod along and wait for you to join me. I would close my eyes and watch you join me.
I would call your school to tell them that we were moving, create a fake address for your school records, throw us a going away party and invite everyone we know. I would cancel at the last minute. I would cover all of our tracks. I would be calm and gracious and no one would know. Your death would not be marked by a ceremony, they would not make me give you up. I will not give you back.
If they took you, I would dig your body back up. If they took you, each time they filled your gravesite with dirt I would dig it back up to find you, to make sure you weren’t cold. I would tuck you in each night and kiss your eyelids before I slept on the ground next to you. I would be right there, sweet boy.
The first task of motherhood is making time for life. Changing time. The first act of motherhood is change. The first task of motherhood is remembering. Remembering to always let go. Oh, it can’t be that. Try again.
I. Again. Get this down: the first task of letting go is connection. Motherhood is connection. You are connected. The first task of letting go.
I would know something was wrong on the drive home. I am your mother. I would know. I would try to slow my breathing, take weight out of my thoughts, know that I always think the worst. I would try to sit casually, to not speed, to relax my hands.
I would open the door and yell your name like I do. I would toss my keys on the table and head up to your room to say hi. Assuming sleep, assuming headphones. I would not see you hanging there because my brain would know to cover you up before I knew that. I would not see you. I would call your phone, wondering where you were. I would call the school, my sister, my mother. I would slow my breath, take the weight out of my thoughts, know that I always think the worst. I would start dinner. You would be hanging by the belt you’d fastened into a noose from the stairwell and I would make dinner. I would listen to music and sing and cook and try not to worry. 14 years old is a time of irresponsibility, a time when boys forget to call their mothers. I would wait and try not to worry.
I would set the table.
But my body would know. I would lock the front door and the back door. The only way to get you home for dinner is to lock the doors. I would stir the sauce, pound nails and smooth caulk into doorframes and windows. I would chop vegetables and slice bread and dismantle bookshelves and bed frames and use their bones to board the windows. I would tip mattresses and couch cushions and rugs and curtain rods and push the refrigerator and stove into that blockade while I waited for the water to boil. I would pile books and shoes there too, stack cans and paintings, I would create a giant mountain of our lives together in front of any way out so you would always be here. I would pour your milk, get our forks and knives. I would pull phone wires and cables out of the wall, I would keep us closed. We could eat dinner now, like we should have.
I. Again. Don’t lose him. The first task of letting go: joining, it’s doing.
I would hang myself next to you, if I found you hanging there, my sweet boy. If I found you hanging there, from the stairwell, with the belt you tied into a noose, I would hang myself. Just a minute now. Maybe this is what we do. Maybe we hang ourselves. Like swimming or hugging or living. I would find my own belt, tie my own belt into a noose and ask you to be patient for just a minute longer, buddy. I’ll be there soon. Oh thank fucking god.
I couldn’t do it though. I would miss you too much.
I. Again. The first task. Motherhood. Letting go.
Motherhood is a constant series of small deaths, sweet boy. Nursing, sleeping, carrying, spoon-feeding, diapering, comforting, these things all end–the next thing has to have a space to start. And it’s so good this way. We don’t get to say goodbye but it’s okay; there’s more, there’s always more. I never got to say goodbye before you ended. The last time you drank from me, the last time I woke with your warm body anchored to mine, the last time I carried you. Those are the deaths of motherhood, not this. I miss you. I have always missed you but you have been here so it’s been okay. The first task of motherhood is letting go. Letting go is motherhood. Slowly extricating, slowly losing. The first task of motherhood is letting go. This can’t be it, this cannot be the last of you. If I found you hanging there I would erase you. If I found you hanging there I would erase myself. If I found you hanging there I would never have been. This mortal wound, that let you out, it would rewind itself. If I found you hanging there it would not be the end. It will have never started. If I found you hanging there I would never know you.
I am so, so sorry sweet boy. This can’t be it. I’ll try again.
I. Again. The first task of motherhood is a decision. The first task of letting go was made in the choice to begin. This is how we let go. This is it. This is the first task, act.
The first task of motherhood is to know how it ends, to remember before it begins. The first task of motherhood is to know that the child must stay inside. The child cannot be born. If I found you hanging from the belt that you had fashioned into a noose, I would remember that. I would remember that I allowed you out of me. I would remember all of you in all of that and that I had made a choice. I would remember my body before it split off into you. I would remember you when you were my marrow and blood, even before that. I would kneel before you, sweet boy. If I found you, I would drop down and pray to you at last. How could you have ever existed, sweet pea? I’m so sorry your life hurt. It was my decision. I should have never let you out. I should have let you grow and grow in my uterus until I absorbed you back. I should have sewn myself closed. It would always be just you and me and our struggle to meet through all of that constant pain, the struggle to disconnect our bodies. We would know the pain of that but not of this life. I would keep you here.
I remember 14 years ago hoping you couldn’t feel the pain of your birth. I remember wondering while I pushed you out of me if your eyes were closed too and if I thought “baby, just be okay. Just rest, I’ll do the hard parts” if that thought would be carried from the electricity of that firing synapse into the membranes of my brain, through my spinal fluid into my blood, if it would travel the course of my body to the spot where we were connected and if you would know it. If you would let me hold that burden. I kept my eyes closed, Waylon, and my body pushed you out of me. I’m so sorry. I was the only one who knew you. I remember the last second I got to have you all to myself. I should have kept you safe. If I found you hanging from the stairwell by a belt that you had fastened into a noose I would have known. The first task of motherhood is remembering that you cannot be his mother. I won’t forget that now. I should not have been your mother. Again. I will not be your mother. Again. I have never been your mother and I will never, ever let you go.
This is it: the first task of motherhood is letting go and I will never, ever let you go.