The bed is already crowded when I crawl into it. The cats have arranged themselves neatly around my mother and they are not happy when I climb aboard and upset their cozy set-up.
I fit easily into my father's mattress indentation, he's begun his day but the covers have kept his spot warm. My mother is just awake, still soft from sleep. And that is perhaps what I like best about this infrequent ritual, the intimacy of lying close to the yawns and stretches of a fresh day.
I live out of town and cannot visit as often as I would like. Time skitters by far too quickly on these trips. Days become filled with friends, family squeezed here and there in between. So although I am certainly far too old to be crawling into my parents' bed I relish the private time with my mother. Not to mention the youthful implication of climbing into one's parents' king size bed.
Our talk can be about our sleep the night before ("I had the strangest dream"), our meal the night before ("I love the atmosphere but the salmon was overcooked"), plans for the day ahead ("Is that store still here? The one on the corner behind the bank? Let's go there for sure"). Then we meander to meatier topics: ("is [insert family friend's name] happy? It seemed like they were strained when we ran into them yesterday"). Meatier still are the questions about my life, my marriage, my choices.
Truth is, my life is nothing like what I thought it would be. Pretty much every friend I have says the same thing. My friend Kathy is fond of saying "if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans." God must be laughing big time right about now.
I'd always imagined a storybook marriage, kids, home, friends. I thought the big dilemma would be how many children to have . . . four, to make it even? Two, to make it affordable? Of course this was back when I thought forty was ancient, and eating an entire bag of Doritos wouldn't show up on my fit body which would, by the way, always stay effortlessly fit.
At thirty-five I visit, we lie in bed looking up at the ceiling and I ask my mother if everything's turned out the way she thought it would. She seems surprised at the question and answers "It's better than I thought it would be. Different but better. Why, honey? Are you okay?"
And so, there in my mother's bed, I tell her. I tell her I cannot have children of my own. We talk about the fertility clinics, the failed procedures and the soul-crushing reality that it is not in the cards for us. For me, that is. My husband has two daughters and if it weren't for them I think I might have withered up and floated away. They are my girls, pure and simple.
At forty I visit, we lie in bed looking up at the ceiling and I ask my mother how she and my father have stayed married for four decades and counting. And I tell her. I describe the heartbreaking realization that my marriage will not continue. Wait did I fail to mention that it was my second divorce? Yeah, no, it was. Though the circumstances were far different each time. That's something, right? It should mean something, really mean something, that I've managed to stay close to my second ex-husband, shouldn't it? At least I pulled that off. I may have failed miserably at marriage but post-marriage, well, I've nailed that. My friends say we're the coolest divorced couple they know.
Lying next to my mother at forty-one, I felt a hand on my wrist, a delicate bird-hand I know as well as my own, as I wondered aloud what the hell happened to my life. My mother listening, staring at the ceiling knowing it's easier to talk that way, like when you're in a car.
"I've made a mess of my life, Mom," I say, my eyes fighting back tears, following instead a hairline fracture in the ceiling paint, probably from the house settling. "I've pretty much fouled up every single aspect of it."
Her hand gives a light squeeze. My mother knows -- she always knows -- I need to keep talking so she remains quiet.
"Two divorces? Two? What the hell is wrong with me?"
Do I tell her how hard I worked -- how hard we worked -- to keep it together? Do I confess that I am mostly to blame? Will she smile knowingly if I admit I'm a handful, I'm difficult to live with and I have such impossibly high standards no one not even Barack Obama could meet them? (Well, he could).
Most of my friends wonder why I walked away. "Lots of marriages become stagnant," they say. "That's what happens. It doesn't mean you just walk away. You don't just throw in the towel, Liz," the word just implying an infuriating haphazardness. The decision to leave my marriage was not arrived at impulsively. And it certainly wasn't easy. It was agonizing, painful, and so deeply wounding a part of me died in the process.
"Nothing is wrong with you, Liz," her voice shakes me out of my litany of misery. "Life tries to break us apart sometimes and you didn't break. You bent, yes, but you are not broken. You just need to heal. You'll pick yourself up, honey. You will."
At forty-one, we lie in bed, looking up at the ceiling and she asks me how I am and I tell her. I tell her I am finally happy.
While her questions sometimes make me squirm I am grateful they are asked. I may not tell her this but I am also grateful for the advice that follows. For with age comes acknowledgment of our own limitations, our own ignorance. Our parents' life experiences are seen in a new and more favorable light (finally, they will surely say). So if we have any measure of maturity we will recognize our parents as people who just may know what they are talking about. At the very least we can appreciate their journeys.
The cats have readjusted themselves at different angles beside and on top of my mother. I feel her stroking my hair and reflexively I say: "I know, I know. I need a hair cut."
"I was just thinking your hair is beautiful," she says.
A comment I could not have taken in as an awkward teen, a brooding twenty-something or an independent thirty-year old. But I am forty-three and so I smile. I am grateful for her words.
I am grateful for my mother. And I am grateful for my mother's bed.