My daughter sits across from me at a small table at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Her eyes dart self-consciously from one family group with their baby to another, and she apologizes again for being a working mother and for wanting to make this quick because tonight she gets to be alone in her apartment for the first time since her son was born.

I hate the way she buys into the guilt and the way she punishes herself for establishing her career while her child is a baby. She’s afraid she’s risking too much, that she’s gambling with their bond in favor of a stable financial future.

I made the opposite sacrifice, but I get it. My divorce triggered separation anxiety so extreme in my children that it manifested in violence, so I back-burnered my career to be home for my kids after school. I gambled that   emotional stability would mean more across their lives than travel and material things. As a result, I can’t pay for college or help with weddings, and the guilt sucks hard.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

On the border, inside an immigration detention center, a mother sits alone at a small table.

Or she leans on the wall for strength.

Or she wraps herself in the fetal position, screaming inside her brain.

She gambled on any kind of future better than the hell at home for her son. And lost. The country that beckoned with, “give us your poor, your huddled masses” disappeared her child in broad daylight. And lost him.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

My daughter’s phone pings an incoming video of her baby boy walking in his other grandparents’ kitchen. Eight steps, twelve! We giggle and clap like idiots.

I watch the tears rise in her eyes and my heart sticks on the catch in her voice.

She tries to describe how much she misses her child during the day, and what it’s like to come home to wrap him in her arms and cuddle him to sleep.

“What am I going to do when he is too big to nestle into my shoulder, when he doesn’t want me to hold him anymore?”

“Things change,” I say. “When I hug your brother, I’m the one nestling into his chest. He stands still while I cling to him; it’s his job.”

She grins. “He is hella tall.”

She talks about the pain of separation and wonders if it ever gets easier. I smile and lie to her that yes, it does.

My baby boy is a Marine at the beginning of a 1-year deployment. I live in a state of suppressed hysteria, silent screams rippling along the underside of my skin.

I don’t know what my son is walking into or what it will do to his psyche, but I do know he signed up for this “adventure.” It’s his choice, driven by an all-American impulse to protect the vulnerable from the bullies of the world. I think that’s called irony.

As if on cue, my son shoots me a text. Hey, momma. His sweet, deep voice jumps off the screen into my smile.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

On the border, a mother, fueled by adrenaline and fear, paces linoleum floors. Staring at the wall, she sits frozen on a plastic chair, begging and pleading for help from her God and all the saints with every prayer she has ever heard. Spent from a day of frantically chasing down every stranger in a uniform for any crumb of information, she hangs her head in despair.

She has to close her eyes to conjure the puffy warmth of her child’s hand in hers.

Imagine his arms around her neck and the smell of his hair, sweaty from sleep.

Listen carefully to the blood moving in her veins for the echo of his voice.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

My daughter shifts in her seat, still seeking permission to enjoy her night alone. “I mean, it’s not like I won’t see him in a few hours, right?”

I snort. Relax, child. Don’t be me. I’m the one turning to a life coach to give myself permission to let go of my son, who is almost twenty, and to step into a life without him in the same town. He will be gone 12 months. I’m the freak; you’re doing fine.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

On the border, a mother is shuffled and herded onto a plane back to Honduras. Salvador. Guatamala. Without her child. Will she hold him again in one year? Ten?

Ever?

She doesn’t know, and the uniforms can’t tell her. The uniforms don’t know, and their bosses can’t tell them.

The plane yanks her body into the sky, but every single damn last fiber of her being remains here. It howls and it shrieks above the engine noise and whips her fury and pain across the landscape.

We will burn for this.

And when the plane lands, what? Do we expect her to just get over the ache, the emptiness, the separation of his little heartbeat from hers like oh well, that’s what you get when you gamble?

Do we imagine her laughing again someday? Loving again? Or you know, hiring a life coach to help her step into a life without her child in the same town?

Do we think she’ll just get a job, meet her mother for dinner, and smile at the other family groups and their babies?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

{Written for Get Lit: June 2018 | Read again for Alameda Shorts: July 2018: Theme: Glare}