Rebecca Brock earned her MFA through Bennington College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Threepenny Review, Mothers Always Write, CALYX, Mom Egg Review, K’in and elsewhere. Idaho born, she is raising her two sons in Virginia. https://www.rebeccabrock.org/.
When did time start? my son asks, looming at 4 am.
The animal in me startles, cries out—
his face so close and sudden in the dark,
it’s only a moment that I don’t know him.
But it’s the kind of thing he asks.
He could mean the tick of the clock,
his knowledge of bedtime, time to wake up,
or he could mean his own beginning.
Burdened with a restless mother,
he understands distance is a thing to measure
(how much longer mama?)
between here and there and when
we are on our way toward home again.
Already he’s unearthed stories of stone fish
in a Wyoming desert, of cliffs in Nova Scotia
scored with prehistoric trees, an Oreodont skull
in South Dakota—he knows that rocks themselves have ages.
He might have been asking about old human things:
temple gods and sacred rites, lost cities—
he’s raced his brother around ancient mounds in Ohio,
walked undulations of an earthen serpent’s
twists and turns once aligned with moon, sun,
and steady seeming stars.
Do you hear that? he asks after I’ve coaxed him
back beneath the covers, snuggled down
beside him—a sound like clanging pipes,
like a radiator we don’t have, shudders
and I rise to look out the window,
turn to tell him it is only hard rain.
There are at least two ways
to measure a life: the human one,
and the universe’s grander score
of expanse, immensity, collapse.
I lie awake to the wash of it.
The surgery room, after the bustle and baby talk
of the prep, is a bright unremarkable surprise.
Also cold. Masks and hats looming. The old look older,
I assume, because I know the small look smaller,
the vulnerable—well, I am only allowed back
because I am the mother and the medical staff
are doing camaraderie, the wink and the nudge
and the friendly friendly fire before the undoing,
before repairing the undone. It is hard for me
to act as though it is not hard to be alive—
my boy is stiff and terrified and breathing quick,
willing himself to hold, to stay still.
Even still, he grimaces at the anesthesia mask,
and I reach to help hold it—
Well aren’t you useful, mom, someone says.
I mumble something back but that’s the whole of me—there—
holding the mask and he’s trying not to go under,
his eyes trying to open up against their closing,
he pants into the mask—fighting—
and I’m telling him—this child, this boy
whom I’ve taught everything from look both ways,
to pedal, pedal, pedal, to c-a-t cat, to 1 plus 1,
to wash your hands, brush your teeth, wash
your parts, don’t hug your friends so hard,
say please, say thank you, look people in the eye
when you speak—breathe, buddy, just breathe—
he fights until it seizes him,
the easy drift a hard crash.
I say what all the mothers must say: he’s really special
and find myself making thank you hands, pleading prayer
hands, please and thank you and God bless hands—
two of the nurses can’t meet my eyes, one is crying,
maybe other mothers
are tougher or maybe nurses
understand, more than most,
or maybe it was just him,
that last fight he gave before going out,
that spirit: its pulse and serve,
its oddity and fight.