In 2006 the L.A. Daily News published an essay I wrote about a troubling bingo night – yes, such a thing can exist – that helped eased the burden of my parent’s soul. There’s both a comfort and a bittersweet charm in rereading it now, with my son being almost fourteen, and not seven. The gist of it, the emotional bumps and dings of parenting, is timeless. So, please, allow me to share once again.
It’s bingo night at my son’s elementary school. He’s never played serious bingo before, the kind where adults and children alike hunker down, armed with stacks of bingo cards, markers and steely expressions. At seven, he doesn’t yet understand the ways of the world—that you can play multiple games all night long and still never win. My son, I sense, is about to learn a life lesson. Therefore, so am I.
“Bingo!” I hear him shout out fifteen minutes into the games as I’m selling cards to late-comers. A buzz of speculation fills the crowded cafeteria. I’m thrilled. I’m also scared. Does he really have bingo? I wasn’t paying attention to his card. He scrambles up to the judges station and my stomach twists. And for a good reason. The judges point at a spot on his card, then shake their heads. He hasn’t won. The stomach twists become knots as I watch him return to our table, face stoic, chin jutted out. “They made a mistake,” he says, trying to control his trembling voice. “They were wrong.”
I am the mommy here, so I hide my own pain and keep my voice breezy yet sympathetic. I compare his marked card to the numbers on the blackboard. “No, sweetie. See? You got this first number wrong.”
The night, of course, is now tainted. Stress levels increase as grumbles give way to tears and accusations. “Why did you make me come to bingo night?” he cries forty minutes later. “I knew I’d hate it. I hate this.” I feel sick. My head pounds. We finally leave early, only to have him twist around in the parking lot and shriek that he changed his mind, that he wants to go back, that he’ll do anything to go back, and please, pleeeaase, Mom? But of course I must hold strong. The ride home is a full-blown symphony of screams, sobs, pleas, threats, and hurled taunts that I just don’t understand; I just don’t care. Bad Mommy. You blew it yet again.
I’m not cut out for this job. I can’t cope, I cry to my husband, who always manages to maintain control when battling our son’s willful nature. But, that said, how can I be expected to stay strong and resolute when my son, my baby, is sobbing out my name, now holding out his arms to me? When our eyes meet, so do our souls. This is, after all, the little creature who grew from a seed inside me, who was set on my chest seconds after being born, wet slippery flesh against flesh. A mother and child eternally share a bond that transcends rules and reason.
My emotions are intertwined with his, a point driven home a few years ago when we found a dead snake in our driveway. The snake was black and delicate, slender as a pencil. My son picked it up and we decided such a pretty creature deserved a proper burial. My husband dug a hole for it and said a few noble words before motioning for our son to set the snake into the ground. I watched his little face process the implication of the scenario. Tears filled his eyes. “But I don’t want it to be this way,” he cried, clutching the dead snake. And right then, I was there inside him, experiencing the terrible, sweeping realization that this snake, once alive like us, was now dead and my son was expected to drop it in the hole, dump dirt on it and bury it forever. He began to cry, heartbroken sobs against which I had no emotional defense. I crouched down, held him close and sobbed with him.
A snake. A bingo game. What happens when the issues become bigger? A broken heart; the betrayal of a close friend; the dawning awareness of life’s inherent cruelty and unfairness? My presence on that journey, I realize, is what defines the role of mother. Wherever he may go, there I’ll be, swept along emotionally.
I panic that the tender years are slipping past too quickly. No more sippy cups or sweet mispronunciations of words. No more holding hands as we walk together into his classroom. Some day soon he’ll tell me he’d rather go to his classroom alone. In another half-dozen years, he’ll be asking me to walk 100 feet ahead of him at all times and never acknowledge that we’re related. This cliché I’d laughed about with my friends now shocks me with its inexorable approach into my own life.
Whether or not I’m cut out for this job, the truth is, I will rise to the challenge. I am his mother, after all. And that title—encompassing guardian, disciplinarian, confidante, advocate, greatest fan—says it all.