by Ruth M. Hunt
My fingers dig into the faux-leather steering wheel as I point my right foot to the ground and the engine roars with exertion. One thought goes through my mind, “What the heck am I going to do with this kid?!” The windshield wipers’ squeaky objection snaps me out of my trance and I slap my hand up quickly, turning the wipers off. The rain has finally stopped. The word, “rain,” gives more credit than this annoying drizzle has earned. We moved to Washington from Texas three months ago and the constant mist is as annoying as gnats in your face when you’re trying to enjoy a picnic. At least in the dry Texas heat my hair didn’t frizz. Of course, I haven’t had my hair down much here where it can frizz. I’ve been working long hours preparing for this deployment and being in the uniform means my hair is up in a tight, strict bun.
Again I’m jarred out of my ranging thoughts as I make a quick right turn and my truck fish-tails into the empty left lane. “Oh, crap,” escapes my lips as I’m barely able to keep from spinning out. I release my foot from the accelerator. I remind myself I still need to learn how to drive on these slick roads. I try to calm my anger and anxiety and take slow, deep breaths. The full scent of the lush greenery is calming in its backwoods way. The beauty of this unfamiliar state is undeniable as I admire the silent giants lining each side of the road the whole way home.
I make the last turn into my neighborhood and take time to back slowly into my driveway. This is a last ditch effort to provide time to calm down. I walk to the door and hesitate at the lock. I have my key out, but if it’s unlocked, then that means my theory was right and he’s inside.
A slow turn of the handle, and yes, the door opens easily. All the calming efforts from the drive are left outside with the persistent mist. I stomp my boots loudly on the new welcome mat and slam the door behind me.
I yell into the dark, open space, “Jaden! I know you’re here! You better not make me look for you!”
His reluctant steps are magnified in the silent house as he trudges slowly down the stairs. Our little dog trails silently behind him as if she’s in trouble too. I stand in the entry-way, jaw grinding, and watch as he slides his hand down the rail and takes the last step onto the wood floor in front of me.
In a whisper accompanied by a fluttering glance, he looks up at me and says, “Hi, Mommy.”
I quickly switch into drill sergeant mode. “Don’t you ‘Hi, Mommy’ me! Why are you not at school? Why is your principal calling me again? We just talked about this last week! This is the third time this month! What is going on with you?!”
He stares at the floor and shrugs. He’s still wearing his school uniform and he pulls his collared, baby blue shirt down in a nervous motion. His khaki pants have a doodle drawn on the left knee in pen that I think will take me forever to wash out.
I sigh and tell him to go sit on the couch. I take my uniform top off and hook it over the stair railing. With my dog tags clinking under my tan t-shirt, I follow behind him and sit on the couch.
“Jaden, you have to tell me what’s going on,” I say as patiently as I can manage.
He sits all the way back on the couch, his white-socked feet barely touching the ground as he slouches and folds his arms over his chest.
He shrugs again and whispers, “Nothing.”
I feel the irritation rising with the growl in my throat.
I lash out, “Jaden, there has to be something going on!”
When I yell at him his head jerks up as if I’ve slapped him and his dirty-blond hair bounces off his forehead.
His soft-brown eyes are wide as he stares at me and says, “I’m sorry. It’s nothing. I just didn’t want to be at school today so when the bell rang after lunch I just walked out and came home.”
I press forward with the interrogation. “Are you having problems with another kid? Are you skipping to meet up with some other kids? Are you having problems with one of your classes? What is it?”
Again, he says it’s nothing. He apologizes and says it won’t happen again.
Suddenly I’m exhausted and I rub my hands over my face as if I can just wipe away the fatigue.
With my eyes closed and covered by my fingertips, I mutter through my palms, “Just go start working on your chores and we’ll talk about this when Daddy comes home.”
He walks off slowly and I head upstairs to my room.
As I sit on the padded, wooden bench at the end of my bed, I call the principal to let him know Jaden is home. I apologize and thank him for informing me of his absence. I sigh as I hang up the phone and start untying my boots. Leaned over, fingers tugging on laces, I notice a shadow cross slowly in front of me. I sit up and Jaden is standing silently in the doorway.
His shoulders are hanging heavy and his head is down. He looks up slowly and his eyes are full of unshed tears. He looks so weighed down with a burden he hasn’t shared with me that I’m immediately concerned.
I gently prod, “What’s wrong?”
It’s like a wave crashing over him as he releases his held sob and the tears flow freely down his lightly freckled cheeks.
His voice breaks and he says, “I don’t want you to go.”
This one sentence, spoken from this eleven year old boy, hits me so hard I feel my heart shattering under the pressure.
Jaden was exactly one year old when I met him. He was sitting on his grandmother’s kitchen table in Kentucky, playing with his aunt and grandmother when I walked into the house with his dad that first time.
I walked in slowly, just to the edge of the table, and shyly said, “Hi.”
This was the first time meeting my boyfriend’s family and I didn’t have much experience with kids. I barely liked them from a distance.
Jaden was an adorable butterball wearing just a diaper and a small, blue onesie. His eyes fixed in wonder at this new person in his home and he turned back to his grandmother for guidance.
In a peppy, excited voice, his grandmother asked him, “Hey, Jaybird, who’s that?”
Jaden turned to me with a huge, unabashed smile. Then, to my horror, he launched himself into a sprinted-crawl and, giggling wildly as if at a joke only he heard, crawled as fast as his fat fists and knees could carry him towards the end of the table; right where I stood. Without any warning or hesitation, he threw himself into my arms. I was truly terrified. I was twenty years old and had no idea what to do with a kid. Now I had one literally throwing himself at me!
I thought of what could’ve happened if I hadn’t gone on instinct and just caught him. He’s put his life in my hands more than once. Ever since I caught him that first day, I’ve never let him go.
When I married his father, Jaden was eighteen months old. He was adorable in his little tuxedo as he walked unsteadily down the aisle, carrying our wedding bands on a tiny pillow.
When he was four he was bitten by a Brown Recluse spider in our home in Oklahoma. I stood in that emergency room, bawling my eyes out and yet trying to sooth him. Trapped in a memory I wish I could forget, I remember looking into his terrified, confused eyes and holding him down while he screamed so the nurses could clean out the wound.
When he was six his biological mother stopped visiting him and after two years without even a phone call, he asked me why she didn’t love him. I fought back tears to reassure him that she loved him and she was just dealing with other things in her life right now. He’s never received another phone call and he’s never asked about her since.
When he was eight my entire family threw him a birthday party at Peter Piper Pizza. His wish that year was, “I wish I could keep this family forever.” It’s horrible to think that at eight he was still expecting the rug to be pulled out from underneath him, as he wondered if this family was temporary.
One day he came to me and asked if I would adopt him. I told him, “Of course!” We finalized the adoption when he was ten and we celebrate his adoption day annually like another birthday. He doesn’t get presents, but he gets to choose where we eat dinner and, of course, gets dessert.
I never thought I wanted kids. When I met Jaden, he changed all that.
Now I look at him standing before me. He’s already gone through so much in his short life. It seems so unfair that now he is standing here, in the shadow of the doorway, looking so defeated, carrying a burden no child should really ever have to carry as he says, “I don’t want you to go,” and I feel the familiar burn in my eyes as tears immediately rush in.
I stretch my arms out and, like he did that first time, he folds his whole self into me, and just trusts.
He’s much taller now. His baby fat long since stretched to fit his lean build. His feet easily touch the ground as he sits in my lap and I hold him close and rock him.
The salt of his tears taste of raw truth as I kiss his cheeks and tell him, “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
He cries, “But what if something happens to you?”
I tell him I’ll be fine. I remind him of how fiery I get and I can take care of myself. He says that sometimes stuff can happen anyway. I remind him that even if something does happen I’ll be fine.
“Why will I be fine no matter what?” I ask him.
He whimpers, “Because God is taking care of you.” I tell him he’s exactly right. I tell him even if God says it’s time for me to go, I’ll still be fine.
The tears continue to roll and he says, “But I will miss you.”
“I will miss you too. You are a part of me,” I whisper against his hair. My body still rocks him instinctively.
He quietly mutters, “Really? I’m a part of you?”
I tell him, “Yes, Jaden. Of course you are a part of me. I think people have more than one soul mate. You have many pieces of your heart that are spread out all over the world and you know when you find one of those people who were meant to be a part of you. You are a part of me. I will always love you and watch over you.”
He sniffles and looks up at me.
“Now you’re crying,” he says with a slight lift in his voice.
I poke him in the belly and jokingly say, “It’s your fault, you made me do it.”
He laughs and says, “I’m sorry.”
He pauses for a few minutes and then continues, “I feel better now.”
“Why, because now I’m crying instead of you,” I laugh past the tears.
He gives me a big hug as my tears are rolling freely now. He gets up off my lap and stares down at me. I wipe my tears away with my hands as he does the same.
Now I see a sly smile spread across his face.
“I’m one of your soul mates,” he says, as if teasing a girl he’s just found out has a crush on him.
“Yes, you are,” I reassure him.
He stands there, looking at me like he has more to say.
His smile slowly shrinks away and he says, “I didn’t want to cry at school. That’s why I left. I won’t do it again.”
All the anger is long gone now and I have to force my voice to be firm when I tell him, “You better not.”
He hugs me again and bounces out of the room, no longer carrying the weight of his burden.
I sit and think about this child who entered my life so unexpectedly. This child who has taught me so much about myself. I sit alone and let it sink in that every word I said to him was true and realize he needed to hear it as much as I needed to say it.