I sink into the easy softness of the leather couch during a rare quiet moment this morning, my hands wrapped around a warm mug. I am tired, but this is not news- the tiredness is familiar to me, a quiet pull of heaviness in the undertones of my body and my thoughts, like the door that separates my conscious and unconscious, is always left slightly ajar.

The mug in my hands was a gift from my mother, or maybe I stole it from her house, I can’t remember. Either way, it’s thick and heavy and I press the warmth of it into my hands and let it work to offset the cold the morning hardwoods have left on my feet.

The baby is sick, the kind of sick that I thought was nothing until finally, a doctors visit, and the doctor sitting, sighing, and me realizing all at once and out loud: “this is a big deal, isn’t it?” and her saying “this is a VERY big deal.” But I didn’t know, couldn’t have known anyway because I was at work most of the time and busy the rest of the time and half asleep ALL of the time; and if I’m being honest this is what is sitting on the couch with me: my guilt.

The couch itself is newish–bought a few months back when I lost my mother because that’s what people do in periods of loss is buy furniture, I think–and still smells strongly of leather.  I sink into the cushions and as I do, something small and white floats out from underneath it. At first, I’m sure it’s a feather, a sign I choose to take that my mother is with me today in my time of worry.

Except no, it’s a dust bunny, and it floats across the room all smug, reminding me of two things: that my housekeeping skills leave something to be desired these days, but also how although I still look for signs that my mother is with me–the feathers, the answered prayers or the smell of her next to me–more and more often I don’t find them.

I think it was close to two years ago the last time I knew for sure that I felt her with me: me and my babies jammed into a different but similar couch and watching TV when suddenly I inhaled and there it was,  her smell: perfume, expensive lotion, a tinge of wistful sadness. “My mom is here,” I said then to my husband, wide-eyed, and my too-young-to-understand daughter leapt off the couch and ran to the door excitedly, yelling “Yay! Nona’s here!” with such fervent excitement that I half expected my mother to waltz right through it.

But she didn’t. And she still hasn’t, and now there’s no feathers and no smell and no one to tell me that it’s okay that my baby is sick and I didn’t even know it because I am stretched so thin across work and parenting and wife-ing and housekeeping and attempting-to-maintain-some-semblance-of-mental-health-ing that I am doing none of them well.

This, too, is nothing new. I remember when my oldest was just an infant, how I felt so guilty that I wasn’t naturally good at any of it, because supposedly my body had been preparing to have a baby since that unfortunate first period in eighth grade, and also there wouldn’t be a term “maternal instinct” unless raising a baby was something our cells were supposed to just inherently know how to do.

Except mine didn’t. My cells knew how to wait tables, write a computer program, run a 5k, open Corona Lights with my teeth and stay up much too late, but they had to be taught how to change a diaper by the nurse in the maternity ward while she clucked her tongue disapprovingly at me. I pretended not to hear because as much as I hated her, I still needed her help.

And when we left that maternity ward and didn’t bring anyone home with us who knew how to arrange the puzzle pieces of a crying infant and my nipple into a configuration that actually produced sustenance, the guilt washed over me just like a tsunami, only it never retreated.

I called my mom, then, crying: “will you come stay with me a week? Help me do this?

But she just laughed. “A week? Jesus. No. But call me if you need me.”

So I stole her mug. Or maybe it wasn’t then that I stole her mug, but it was something like that because that’s how it worked with us.

After that, I called my best friend, already a mom, and before she could say hello I said, “why didn’t you tell me about the GUILT?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m sorry.” Then, a pause, and quietly: “but would it have changed anything?”

Would it have? Of course not. I would still have wanted–needed–that baby and the three that came after him. My cells may not have known inherently how to nurse or swaddle or even when to get the littlest to the doctor, but they knew that there were four children in me. And with each one I would be surprised when I still desperately felt inadequate, and when tide went out and the guilt washed through me. And when I wished my mom was there to help me.

Back on the leather couch,  I hear footsteps: the loudest pounding from the tiniest one of us as he runs into the room calling to me: “Mommy? Where are you?” He comes around the corner like this: so loud and yet so unbelievably small still as I pull him onto my lap. He’s feeling a little better this morning, not all of the way but showing all the signs of getting there, and I remember the prayer I mouthed yesterday in that doctors office, half to God and half to my mother, because that’s how I always pray now. I’m not sure if either one is listening, but I figure I double my odds if I ask them both: “Please, if you are there, just keep my baby safe.”

“You have a mug?” he asks me, wrapping his little fingers over mine to share the warmth.

“I do,” I tell him, adding “and I have you.”

And for now anyway, that has to be enough.

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