The last time I saw my mother was seven years ago. My girlfriend Jaime and I had just bought our first home, a fixer-upper overlooking a greenbelt on a quiet street in Seattle. Instead of a housewarming party, Jaime wanted to have our moms over for lunch.
After several months of silence, I'd recently reconnected with my mother. I don't remember why we stopped talking this time, or who initiated it, but ever since I moved out, our relationship had its ebbs and flows. When I left New York for college in California, we talked sporadically and then not at all — me, busy with school; her, resentfully empty-nesting — until I was almost expelled for fighting, and I called her for advice. And then we didn't talk again until 9/11. And then again until I graduated and moved to Seattle, and she followed, wanting to be closer to me. I never understood the reasons for our patches of estrangement, but changes and crises never failed to bring us back together. She was a single-mother, and I was her only child. In the end, we were all each other had.
That day was the first time my mother had seen our new home. After Jaime and I made an offer on the house, I called her out of the blue to share the news, hoping she'd be proud of me since she never owned a home, but she was skeptical. When my mother arrived that afternoon, she took it all in with a suspicious eye: the janky security door, the stained carpet wavy as a Shar-Pei's scruff, the small shed out back one strong gust from collapsing.
In her eyes, the house wasn't any better than the dingy apartments she and I bounced in and out of around Queens when I was a kid. Despite our frequent tumult, my mother always wanted the best for me — good schools, name-brand clothes, anything I needed really — and would work long hours cleaning rich peoples' houses to provide it without any help from my father who'd left her when she was pregnant. I knew she thought Jaime and I could've done better, but it wasn't worth the argument. I didn't want to ruin lunch, especially with my girlfriend's mom there.
After we finished eating, my mother walked around our place some more, wondering aloud about its deficiencies to no one in particular. I noticed her lingering for awhile at a bureau in the living room staring at a group of photos Jaime had recently framed. There were pictures of the two of us kissing, of our Lab mix Jelly and our fat tabby Butterball, of Jaime's family, and one of me and my grandmother.
"Why don't you have any pictures of me up?" my mother asked.
"We just moved in, Ma," I said. "Jaime put these up."
"But you have one of Grandma?"
My mother stopped speaking to her mother and the rest of our family years ago, again for reasons I still don't understand because my mother has refused to say. I'm sure it has something to do with her decision to have me out of wedlock, and the judgment she felt having been raised Irish Catholic. Since I was just a boy then, I was forced to choose between her and everyone else, which wasn't really a choice at all. Now a man, I'd started exchanging letters with my grandmother and emails with some of my aunts and cousins back in New York. I tried to speak with my mother about it, to encourage her to do the same, but the conversation ended when she accused me of betraying her and hung up on me. Then we didn't talk for a few months.
"Ma, we're still unpacking," I tried to explain, gesturing at the boxes inconspicuously tucked in corners, but I could see the anger in her narrowing eyes and clenched jaw. She excused herself to use the bathroom, then gathered up her purse and coat, and left quickly with a short wave.
The next day I left a message on my mother's answering machine thanking her for coming and apologizing about the pictures. A week later she hadn't returned my call, so I called again. And again. And again.
I never heard back.
Four years later Jaime and I were at the hospital for our first sonogram. The room was warm and dark, and the smell of hand sanitizer was so strong I thought I was already suffering from sympathetic pregnancy.
Jaime had told the technician that we wanted to know the baby's sex. She was indifferent, but I hoped for a boy, if only to make up for all the things I'd missed not having a father, like playing catch or talking about girls. The technician ran the ultrasound wand across Jaime's gooped-up belly and showed us the head, arms, legs, and other indiscernible body parts on the flat-screen mounted to the wall above us. Suddenly, a small arrow popped up pointing at the middle of a staticky, gray blur that was supposed to be our baby, and then the technician typed the words, "It's a boy!"
Although my mother and I hadn't spoken since she'd come over for lunch, she was all I could think about when I saw those three words. Over the years, so much had changed in my life that I wanted to share with her. Jaime and I had eloped. I'd started my career. We'd renovated our home. Was this the change that would bring us back together? And if it didn't, what would?
As I stared at the flat-screen, a hollowness filled my chest, and I could feel the tears welling in my eyes. I took my glasses off and dabbed at my cheeks with my fingers, hoping Jaime wouldn't notice in the dim light of the room. When she did, I grabbed her hand and smiled, passing it off as tears of joy over our unborn son rather than my long-lost mother.
After the technician finished, she handed Jaime a towel to wipe the goop from her belly and asked if we wanted pictures.
"Yes," Jaime said. "Can we have three? I want to give one to my mother."
"Make it four," I said.
It was brisk day in late October, six weeks before the baby was due. Outside of the hospital where our breastfeeding class was, Jaime and I sat in her car while I stared at a cardboard box in my lap. In its corner was a strange address, somewhere in New York I didn't know, written in a familiar handwriting, my mother's. Five months had passed since I sent her a card with a picture of the sonogram and a note that read, "I'm not sure what's come between us, but let's put it behind us. You're going to be a grandmother." This was her first response.
I took a deep breath and tore open the box. Inside it was filled with piles and piles of little boy's clothes — some new, some used — and my first Christmas ornament, a baby blue ball with the words, "It's a boy!" printed across it and the year, 1981. I remembered the ornament from our Christmases together and couldn't believe she still had it thirty years later. On top of everything in the box, there was an envelope. I opened it and read the card inside slowly to myself.
My mother wrote that she'd recently left Seattle, moved to some mountainside town in upstate New York, far from the city life she swore she'd never give up. She explained that she'd met someone, though she didn't mention who or how, and she was happy out there living among the dirt roads and chipmunks and pinecones, far from everyone and everything. And then she wished me good luck in life, as if we'd never see each other again, before signing, "Mom," minus the stream of XO's she'd dashed across every card she'd given me when I was a boy.
I closed the card and cried harder than I'd ever cried before. In the months since I sent her the sonogram picture and never heard back, I assumed our relationship was over. At first, I blamed myself. Did I do something wrong? Should I have tried harder? Then, instead of confronting reality, I convinced myself my mother was dead. It was easier to grieve the loss of her body than it was the loss of her love, to believe she'd never written me back because she couldn't, not because she didn't want to be in my life anymore.
Now I had to accept the truth: I was a 30 year-old orphan. My mother was cutting me off as she'd done with everyone else in our family, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. Despite how long it had been since we'd spoken, I always thought she would come back into my life when the change or crisis was big enough. If becoming a father, making her a grandmother, couldn't bring us together, nothing would.
"I can't go to this class," I said to Jaime in between sobs.
"I know," she said before holding my broad body in her arms. She held me the same way my mother did.
Brian McGuigan is a Seattle-based writer whose nonfiction has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, The Weeklings, and elsewhere. He writes a monthly column about being a father for ParentMap Magazine called "Daddy Issues." When he's not writing and parenting, Brian curates the popular reading series "Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose." He's currently at work on a memoir about fatherhood, violence, and masculinity.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]