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By Megan Williams

By June, the weather is already so sweltering, the very concept of summer feels oppressive. As I park beneath a giant walnut tree at Abington Friends School and walk Gus and Grace across the parking lot for the last time as second graders, the mixture of sadness and happiness that accompanies every end and beginning of the school year as a parent engulfs me. I breathe in the soupy air and count. Based on the estimated start date Detective Brody gave me, I will start the Philadelphia Police Academy in ten weeks.

"Stick Figure in Peril" by Biphop via Flickr (CC)

“Stick Figure in Peril” by Biphop via Flickr (CC)

For a kid, the last day of the school year dawns brilliantly, eclipsing even Christmas in magnitude. It’s Christmas without the letdown, for the next day dawns exactly the same. And the day after. No school. In memory, it never rains on the last day of school. On that day, the sun rises, brighter than it has been all spring. My sister and I eat our English muffins, our legs swinging beneath the stools, fidgeting in the face of a beckoning freedom. School releases us at noon; our dismissal is preceded by four long hours. The ugly black and white faces of the sixties-era clocks tick over, slowly and inexorably, with the backwards regularity of a metronome.

During that last school morning, I think of my bike. My new bathing suit. Whether Tamsen and I can hang over our back fence long enough that afternoon to get invited to swim in the neighbor’s pool. I can’t wait to get home, to take off my sneakers and socks, to wince and hop as my naked winter feet hit the ground for the first time. In the seventies of my childhood, summer is the sound of slamming screen doors as my sister and I sprint outside, through our sprinkler, through the neighbor’s yard. In those days, our neighborhood houses are porous — my sister and I think nothing of racing through the Cioffi’s kitchen and grabbing lunch. I know that kitchen better than my own, with its yellow vinyl chairs and countertops pockmarked from the places where Mrs. Cioffi uses a dull knife to cut the edges off our Wonder bread sandwiches. Everything those summer days is tactile, eternally present. We’re only eight, full of our barefoot freedom, but we’re learned in the differences between Mrs. Salzman’s huge kitchen, smelling of furniture polish and Kraft macaronis, and the Slobodian’s second floor flat, windowless and filled with the taste of overcooked cabbage.

Childhood is different now. There are no wooden screen doors, no porous houses.

All summer we charge around on our bikes, barefoot and helmetless, ignoring our mothers. The neighborhood is its own country. Like plains animals migrating toward watering holes, we know all the shortcuts, all the single track paths that allow us to stampede between the houses of our best friends. A rounded brown storage mailbox squats at the corner of Orchard and Robbins Street and becomes a natural pausing point, a place to catch our breaths after running through Mr. Arizmendi’s flower beds, waiting for him to charge out his front door with a roar, waving his cane. On the days when Mr. Arizmendi doesn’t yell, we unravel a hose and cover the mailbox with water. It’s too hot and too easy to climb unless we coat it with a stream of water. We line up and leap at the brown box, scrambling on all fours like banked wildebeest.

“Why did we just go to the Five and Ten to buy you Dr. Scholl’s?” my mother complains, the wooden slap of her clogs on our ceramic floor as much the sound of summer as the screen doors we bang. We don’t have money to waste on shoes we don’t wear. I love the way the Dr. Scholl’s look in the display, next to the felt ribbons and the Coppertone ad, but I hate wearing them — the leather straps bite into the soft tops of my toes, leaving a stinging badge of summer.

“Put on your shoes,” my mom heckles my sister and me as we gallop about, the mud from the sprinkler caked between our toes. “And for the last time,” she sighs as we pick up our bikes and scoot down the block to Frank’s penny store on Comm Ave, “turn off the damn sprinkler.”

My mother is home the summer I’m eight and my sister is five, but I remember her only as a lurking presence, coloring the edges of our enjoyment. She’s there, but peripheral. Helping us to crack open the homemade orange juice popsicles that overflow onto the freezer floor or coating herself with baby oil in the backyard as she studies for her MBA. More body than anything, she’s the voice that tethers us home with shouts of “dinner.” At eight o’clock in the morning, she’s the hands that push us outside with an exasperated, “Just. Go. Play!” These days, as a mother, I recognize my mother’s tone in my own, when I tell Gus and Grace, “Just leave me alone and give me a minute!” But childhood is different now. There are no wooden screen doors, no porous houses. I cannot shove my children outside and forget about them.

My mother hovers on the borders of summer, always there. And we know it. In the maze of grazing paths that define the neighborhood, there is always a beeline straight back to her if someone scrapes a knee or falls out of a tree. We don’t have air conditioning, the slap of the sprinkler against our house keeps it cool during the day. In the evenings, when the hot summer air rises to our second-floor bedrooms, my mother turns on the fans and coats us with witch hazel. For a brief moment before bed, we shiver, breathing in the astringent smell before it evaporates and we doze off to sleep, the fans whirring in the background.

As I walk beneath the canopy that surrounds Abington Friends School, I’m struck by how different the end of the school year is as a parent. My children are itchy with excitement, but I’m leaving something behind. After this day, Gus and Grace will never again be second graders. Second graders. I picture the pink bath container. Today, they know how to read, they know how to add and subtract. How can it feel as if yesterday they weighed less than three pounds each and were dwarfed by a tub too small for dishes?

“Give me your hands,” I caution Gus and Grace. School this morning is a zoo, with cars zipping around us.

“Why are you yelling?” Grace looks up and asks. In the face of her summer anticipation, I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m just sad.

“Sorry, honey.” I apologize and usher them onto the sidewalk. Grace cups my hand in forgiveness, her palm moist from the early morning humidity.

“No hands, Mommy,” Gus declares.

“No hands?” I joke. “What are we, biking?” From the moment Gus got his first training wheels, he was determined to bike without hands, even if his feet couldn’t reach the pedals.

“No, Mommy.” Gus announces, his face firm as he holds both hands away from me.

I skid to a complete stop in front of the school, surrounded by students chattering and treading time before summer vacation begins.

“I’m a big kid, now.” Gus explains, not unkindly. “I walks alone.” And just like that, with the simple declarative sentences of an eight-year-old, everything slows down. There’s only this moment, filled with a grief so over-flowing I can’t wrap my hands around it. All I can do is shrug and keep walking, clutching Grace’s hand a little bit tighter.

“I hope the kids will be okay with a nanny after school when I go back to work,” I confide to my mother when I pick her up at the train station later that day. She’s arrived to help me paint my hallway — the latest in a long list of projects I create to avoid sitting at my computer and trying to write. In the five years we’ve lived in Philadelphia, I’ve renovated the basement, painted the exterior of the house, wallpapered three rooms, and painted the inside completely. I’m now about to have stenciled Indian elephants and yellow stripes in my mudroom. In the circus that is life with Gus and Grace, the one thing I won’t have done, after my five years here, is written anything longer than the occasional short story.

“Look, Mums,” I defend myself when she greets my worrying with silence. “They’re so used to being with only me, all the time.”

“Your kids are old enough now for you to leave them,” my mom brushes my fears away, with a swish of her hand, my contribution to Gus and Grace’s childhood erased.

I wonder why childbirth classes spend so much time teaching us to breathe during labor — what we really need is breathing classes for the whole of our parenting futures.

It’s ninety degrees out, but here she is, in her eternal lime green cashmere pantsuit. So much privilege and drive is wrapped up in that pantsuit: a Ph.D. from Harvard, an MBA, growing up in Shaker Heights, OH, the daughter of the head of the Cleveland Clinic. She wore that outfit to Puerto Rico when she whisked me and Tamsen away as a surprise for my thirtieth birthday. She wore it when she flew to India and to Bangladesh to volunteer. The year it hit ninety-five degrees during the Boston Marathon, Augie and I were watching the race from our couch in San Francisco when the camera zoomed along the crowd at the top of Heartbreak hill.

“Wait a second. Is that?” Augie questions, leaning forward to squint at the frame more closely.

“Jesus Christ.” I rewind the DVR, and there, indeed, is my mother.? Surrounded by streams of sweaty, heat-stroked and puking runners, she rests against a tree, completely composed in her lime green cashmere pantsuit. Talking with my mother now, I realize it has been more than forty years since my sister and I raced around the neighborhood in Watertown. And in all that time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother sweat. “That WASP venom runs cold,” my sister likes to joke, making my mother frown in mock disapproval.

“I guess.” I vacillate in the face of my mother’s certainty that my kids will survive without me. All I can picture is Gus’s arm when he broke it three weeks ago. Gus and Grace were doing gymnastics in the basement with two friends. Walking around cleaning the kitchen, I heard the hinges creak beneath me and the loud thumps of kids tumbling. These were normal sounds. Then I heard a shriek that made me drop everything and run.

As a parent, you know that sound, and you hope never to hear it.

“My arm is broken, Mommy.” Gus howls from the bottom of the stairs. “Mommy, help.”

“You’re going to be all right, honey.” I reassure him as I hurry down the stairs. “You didn’t break your arm.”

Sobbing, he lifts his little white arm, a puppy holding up a paw for me to fix. Twisted like an S, his arm no longer belongs to him. It’s now a gelatinous thing, without fibers.

“So, yeah.” I rub his back and lead him up the stairs. “We’re going to the hospital RIGHT NOW.”

“Mommymommymommy,” he hyperventilates in one long word. “Are they going to have to cut me open?”

“No, honey.” Calming words come out of my mouth, but I can’t breathe, and time seems to freeze. Gus is shaking in shock. I call my neighbor to watch Grace and her friends and go upstairs three times. Each time I get to the landing, I circle, dazed, forgetting that I’m there for my wallet and medical cards. At the bottom of the stairs, the three girls stand, white as sheets, their eyes flicking back and forth between me and Gus.

“Go upstairs. Go upstairs and play.” I push them away. They don’t need to see this. I don’t need to see this. I try to breathe, but no oxygen is flowing to my brain. In a brief moment of punch-drunk frenzy, I wonder why childbirth classes spend so much time teaching us to breathe during labor. Compared to the frighteningly long moments like this, birth is a transitory moment; what we really need as prospective mothers is breathing classes for the whole of our parenting futures.

“But Mommy,” Grace cries, on the edge of tears. “Gus’s arm doesn’t look like an arm anymore.”

“Upstairs,” I point, and she scampers off with a sob.

“What if they can’t fix my arm?” Gus cries, inconsolable.

“Don’t be silly, Goose,” I flick his nose, as if this were all one colossal joke. “If they can fix Mommy, they can fix you.”

When he nods in agreement, I realize he really is in shock. Normally, my skewed logic wouldn’t make it past his terrier-like brain.

“Sit still, hon.” I tell him. “I’m going to wrap your arm in a towel to protect it for the car ride.”

His arm doesn’t need to be splinted, but I put a towel around it anyway. I simply cannot bear to look at it. Gus and Grace have had their share of illnesses, stitches, hospital visits. But nothing has prepared me for this moment. Not until I see Gus’s misshapen arm, so quickly bent and curved, do I realize how perfect my children are, how ungrateful I’ve been for their straight limbs and everyday gestures.

Somehow, I drive us to the hospital, the other cars and traffic signals swimming in front of me as I keep my eyes glued to the rearview mirror. Gus is uncharacteristically silent, his snuffling sobs our only soundtrack.

I wheel the Tahoe into the Emergency Room bay and open Gus’s door, spewing old McDonald’s wrappers and calcified fries on the tarmac.

“Take them, take them.” I thrust my keys to the attendants and scoop Gus into my arms.

“Don’t pick me up, Mommy,” he instructs. “I can walk.”

I raise my hands to my temples, making an imaginary vise. “Can you not do this independence thing right now, Gus?” I plead. “You just broke your arm.” I’m scared. Now, more than anything, I need to hold him, to touch him, to bury my head against him, to believe that somewhere beneath all that hair I can still smell my newborn.

Inside Abington Memorial, the triage nurse takes one look at us and presses the button to hermetically unseal the doors. In an instant, nurses swarm around us, taking Gus’s temperature, his weight, his pulse-oxygen level. Several policemen huddle in the corner, idly sipping coffee and joking with the nurses.

One of them stands, shifting his weight to bend down in Gus’s face. “Why the long face, buddy?” he asks, opening his arms jovially.

Gus looks from his arm to me in confusion. “Seriously?” I put my arms on my hips.

“You don’t look very sick, buddy,” the officer continues. In an instant, my fear transforms into white hot rage.

“His arm is fucking broken, you moron,” I growl. I cannot believe a bunch of clueless men are bullying my son in triage.

“Oh Jesus.” The officer looks down and blanches. “Um, sorry?”

“Here you go, buddy.” A nurse pushes a wheelchair behind Gus and he climbs into it. “You’re being so brave.” I’m pretty sure she’s brought the chair not because we need it, but because she sees how raw I am in my panic. Standing before the police and the nurses, I’m stripped of all veneer, feral in my desire to punch and flail against life.

Once they wheel us back to our room, things proceed quickly. X-rays, the orthopedist, the attending, then the IV for pain.

“I’m just going to thread a straw into your arm to give you some medicine,” the nurse explains to Gus. She’s an old battle-axe of a nurse, far past her expiration date.

“No,” he tells her.

“What do you mean, ‘no’?” She doesn’t look up as she untangles tubing, but her voice is steely, absent of the humor you need to talk to a scared eight-year-old.

“N-O.” Gus spells the word out as if she were stupid. “That sounds horrible.” I cover my smile with my hand. The nurse looks at me reproachfully, but I raise my eyebrows, full of mock innocence. On this one, I’m going to have to side with my son. If someone said they wanted to stick a straw up my veins, I’d run like hell.

The nurse shakes her head and steps toward Gus with the rubber tourniquet.

He crosses his one good arm over his chest. “I want my mom to do it. Not you.”

“Uh, Gus?” I burst out laughing. “That won’t turn out so well for you.”

“But you’re a doctor,” he whines, his eyes wide and pleading.

“Not that kind of doctor.”

“If your mom does it,” Nurse Crotchety interrupts, “blood will spurt all over this room and drip down the wall in puddles.”

Stepping between my son and the nurse, I put my hand on her arm. “I think we’re done here.”

“I still need to start his IV,” she shakes me off.

“No,” I still her again with my hand. “You don’t. Another nurse will be starting his IV.”

“I can do it,” she sputters.

“Leave.” I point to the door, my arm a rigid straight line. She remains immobile, and so I continue. “I’m not letting someone put an IV in my son’s arm who just talked about the room filling with blood. Get me another nurse.”

After what seems hours of trying to do anything but look at Gus’s arm, it feels good to act, to accomplish something.

When she leaves, I put my hand on Gus’s good shoulder and promise, “Next time, we’re going to CHOP. It’s fucking amateur hour here.”

“Mommy,” Gus waggles a finger at me. “You swore.”

“Yeah,” I sigh. “Sometimes there are days when you just need to fucking swear.”

“That nurse really sucked,” he giggles and winks at me, eyes full of conspiracy. “Amen, brother!” I reach out to fist pump him and then dissolve my fist in smoke.

“Looks like I’m starting your IV, kid.” The orthopedist Dr. Xavier arrives with a whoosh. In a matter of minutes, Gus’s eyelashes are fluttering.

“Do you want me to explain what we’re going to do here?” Dr. Xavier asks. He’s young, swarthy, and fit.

“Um? Yeah.” I’m holding Gus’s good hand, but I still manage to turn and stare at the orthopod. Is he insane? Of course I want him to explain a surgical procedure. Did he really think I would just nod my head and tell him to have at it? To rearrange my son’s bones as he sees fit?

“We’re going to give him Ketamine,” the orthopedist explains, even though he doesn’t really seem to register my presence. “It’s been proven to be very effective for kids his age.”

“A veterinary drug?” I’m skeptical, at best.

“Yes. Since he broke both the radius and the ulna, I’ll set them, then X-ray the arm. If everything looks good on the films, I’ll cast it, and you can be on your way.” Dr. Xavier’s manner is brusque, but he pauses to add, “At this age, the bones are more like starfish than bones. Flexible.”

I can’t help looking down at Gus’s arm. The doctor is correct; from the outside his arm, in its grotesque s-form, looks more marine invertebrate than limb.

“Will he feel anything?”

“He won’t remember feeling anything.” Dr. Xavier bustles about the room, setting up his tray and never making eye contact with me.

“Hold on, hold on.” I interrupt, shifting my feet in discomfort. “Go back to that part about memory?”

“He won’t remember the pain,” the orthopedist reiterates.

“But not remembering pain is not the same as not feeling it,” I point out, suddenly angry.

“True.” Dr. Xavier nods his head in tacit assent. “But we’ve found that this is absolutely the safest drug for kids his age. Almost zero risk of complication.”

Without fully realizing it, I allow myself to be pushed aside in the face of the great medical machine.

“Ready?” The orthopedist asks the team. Everyone nods, and he puts two hands on Gus’s forearm and twists. Gus’s eyes pop open and he screams a scream unlike anything I’ve ever heard. And he doesn’t stop. “Mommy, mommy, mommy, help me,” he pleads in one long shriek, trying to sit up and move toward me even though two orderlies hold him down.

In slow motion, I step forward.

“You might want to sit down,” the attending tells me, his words soft and patronizing.

“I’m not going to faint,” I retort. “What I might do is jump across this gurney and rip the orthopedist’s throat out.”

“I’m done,” the surgeon says, looking uneasily at me. “Let’s do the X-ray.”

“Hi Gus.” The X-ray technician greets Gus and slips the plate beneath his arm. “I’m Bob.” Gus’s eyes are doe-large in their terror, wobbling quickly back up to mine.

“Hi Bob.” A small voice whispers.

“I thought you said he’d be asleep,” I accuse the orthopedist.

“He won’t remember anything,” he reassures me.

“Because that was just about the worst thing I’ve ever experienced as a parent.” I’m shaking so violently that my words come out in waves. “Ever. I’m never, ever, going to get over this.”

“That’s how it usually goes,” Dr. Xavier assures me. Wordless, I open my arms in the universal “what the fuck are you talking about?” gesture.

“I don’t care how it usually goes,” I throw down, livid. “That fucking sucked.”

With a shrug in my direction, Dr. Xavier scans the films. “These look good. Let’s cast it.”

After Gus’s arm is wrapped, we wait for an hour for the medication to wear off. Left alone in the room with my son, I slide onto the bed next to him and slowly deflate. Aftershocks shudder through me. I’ve nothing left. No air. No breath. No fight. Today has taken almost everything I have.

An hour later, I hoist Gus around my midsection like a baby orangutan and walk to my car. His head lolling softly against my shoulder, I’m happy that he allows me to carry him.

“Hi, Bob!” Gus raises his head to deliver a cheery greeting to the X-ray technician when we pass him in the hall.

“Hi, uh, Gus,” Bob stutters, amazed. We stare at each other for a loaded moment. We both know Gus should not remember the X-ray technician’s name. In fact, he should remember nothing about the procedure. Bob grimaces in sympathy at me, and I stumble away, overwhelmed by the full extent of my failure. Not only did my son break his arm on my watch, but he had two bones set without anesthesia. And I did nothing. I allowed myself to be pushed aside, to be convinced by the doctors.

For four weeks, Gus has a cast up to his elbow. He’s eight years old, and he’s not allowed to run, and it’s summer. Unable to brace his fall, he might break his other arm. He lurches around the house, a parody of a zombie, his bad arm held out from his side like a broken chicken wing. At night, I close my eyes and hear Gus screaming. “Mommy, mommy, do something,” he pleads, but I’m paralyzed, holding his hand, unable to act. For weeks after the accident, his scream follows me everywhere, like the phantom cry of the newborn.

“It’s not as if your kids are infants, anymore,” my mother tells me. “They don’t need you the way they used to.” And while her words are surely true, all I can picture is Gus’s arm, how his eyes popped open, searching for me the minute the orthopedist touched him. At least I was there, I try to tell myself. I was present.

If there is an accident when I go back to work, someone else will hold my children’s hand at the hospital. This reality fills me with grief. I think of the deer tracks through my childhood neighborhood, how quickly we galloped home when we were afraid. I think of how my mom gave me witch hazel when I was hot, and warm ginger ale when I was sick, and I’m not so sure that, however old we become, we ever outgrow our primal scream, our need for our mothers to come fix us when we’re hurt.

“It’s time for you to do something besides being a mom,” my mother directs. She is strident, so determined in what she wants for me, that I can no longer hear the ginger ale and witch hazel in her voice.

“What, exactly, does that mean?” In a rare moment of cantankerousness, I fight against my mother, cranky from a morning filled with eight–year-old whining.

“If you really loved me, you’d buy me a pygmy donkey.” Gus tossed over his shoulder in one final ultimatum before scampering into his classroom that morning.

“We could name your donkey ‘Snack,'” I yelled cruelly back at him. “For when Mia and Shady eat it.”

“You’re the meanest mommy EVER,” Gus leaned out his classroom door and shouted.

“Right.” I’d muttered my agreement and stomped away.

I know for a fact that there are exactly two pygmy donkeys for rescue in our tri- state area. But the past few days have been so full of fighting and bellyaching that I might do anything to make it stop. Even buy a pygmy donkey. They’re cute in a matted-hair kind of way. If buying one will make the wheedling and whining stop, I’m all in. I might even get one good day of peace in before my dogs devour it whole.

“Your kids will probably be born early. They’ll wake up every two hours. Maybe for a year. But it won’t be the same two hours.”

Unaware of how much I dislike my children at this moment, my mother continues to explain her childcare philosophy to me as we tape my walls. “You’ve a very narrow window to get back in the work force, Megan. You don’t want to turn fifty with nothing to show for yourself besides being at home. You’re too educated and too ambitious.”

I glare at her, wanting to point out that it’s she who is too educated and too ambitious to have me as a daughter, but I don’t. Instead, I try to imagine the fuzzy nose of a pygmy donkey. It doesn’t work. I have no idea where my mother gets this idea of part-time motherhood, this belief that you can leave being a mother at the door when you head to work in the morning. Given the extent to which broken bones and pygmy donkeys dance in my imagination, I know I can’t.

“You never know, it might be good for Gus and Grace to spend some time away from you,” my mother elucidates in her usual clipped tone, her bobbed hair brushing against her cashmere turtleneck. Her words slay me, for I can’t imagine a world in which I don’t need her, or my children don’t need me. For eight years, I’ve woken when they shrieked in the night, held their hands when they got stitches. The idea that they might not need me opens an abyss, an unfathomable absence of self-definition.

“Your children could stand to grow up a bit,” my mom adds, the final nail in the coffin, and I slide straight down her words into my thirteenth summer. I’m sitting across the table from my parents, inhaling the smell of the honeysuckle that climbs up the side of the house, damp from the sprinkler.

“I’ve signed you up for a summer program in France. I’m hoping it will make you less shy,” my mother declares, almost as an aside, over our dinner of lamb chops and mint jelly. I drop my fork.

“I don’t want to go to France.” I announce petulantly.

“Of course you want to go to France.” She corrects, fingering the eighties silk bow around her neck. She has come straight from her job as an investment banker to cook dinner. “Everyone wants to go to France.” She looks to my father for confirmation, but he’s engrossed in his lamb chop.

“No.” I state, firm in my conviction. “I really don’t. I want to just stay home in Watertown.” I point at her in accusation. “You want me to go to France.”

“You’re right,” she agrees. “I think it’s time you learned to be more independent.”

“What’s wrong with me the way I am?” I scream, throwing my napkin down and flouncing upstairs with the righteous indignation only a thirteen-year-old girl can manufacture.

My mother never answers me, not then, not today. I went to France that summer, and then to boarding school a year later. I worked hard to act independent, to pretend.

Not until Gus drops my hand outside his school on the last day of second grade do I learn that need can be something you outgrow, instead of a shameful feeling that should be cut off at the quick, quickly cauterized by the forced separations of my own childhood. Gus is, quite simply, growing up and becoming more self-sufficient.

Staring down the barrel of what could potentially be my last summer at home with Gus and Grace, I balk at the idea that in the fall a nanny will pick them up from school. Chewing over this feeling, I recognize its taste from early on in my life as a parent.

“If your twins are born early,” my friend Jodi advises in the first days of my pregnancy, “you’re absolutely going to want a night nanny.”

I’m five months pregnant, and we’re eating at a restaurant in the Presidio, the smell of the wood burning oven mixing with the salt of the ocean.

“What the hell is a night nanny?” Augie asks, suspicious, as always, of anything that costs money.

“Someone who comes from ten to six every night so you can sleep,” Jodi explains, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have a stranger stay in your house at night and take care of your newborns.

“Best money you’ll ever spend,” her husband Jon interjects. “Even if it’s a small fortune.”

“How much?” Augie asks, belligerently.

“A year of college tuition, really,” Jodi corrects. “Maybe twenty thousand dollars?” She looks to her husband and he shrugs, putting the past where it belongs.

“But I want to take care of my kids myself,” I protest, rubbing my hands over my belly.

Augie nods his head in support, his cheeks still slightly flushed from our walk to the restaurant. We strolled leisurely through Pacific Heights, enjoying the setting sun and the coolness that inched into the eucalyptus groves along Lover’s Lane. Blissfully innocent in our childlessness, we have no idea of what is coming.

“So.” Jodi prepares her words carefully, as if delivering them to two pre-verbal children sulking in time-out. “Your kids will probably be born early. They’ll wake up every two hours. Maybe for a year. But it won’t be the same two hours. You’ll only have just finished with one when the other will need to be fed, changed, burped. The whole nine yards.”

“You’ll be up all night,” Jon added for emphasis. “Every night.”

Augie and I look at them in disbelief. With Jon’s ironed pink shirt and Jodi’s neat pony-tail, there’s no way they lived through the disaster they are describing.

“You’ll be so tired, you’ll forget your children’s names and when you last fed them.”

“Ha.” I blurt out before I realize that Jodi is not joking.

“It’s not that you won’t be taking care of your kids if you get a night nanny,” Jodi corrects me. “As a mom, you’re always going to be taking care of them. Moms don’t get days ‘off.’ But this way, you can be fully functional when you’re with them.”

“I do pretty well with sleep deprivation,” Augie offers.

“You have no idea.” Jodi tells him flatly. “Just set someone up. You can always not use her.”

Augie and I look at each other and shrug. We’re willing to give it a try. It can’t hurt.

And that’s how I come to be standing in my kitchen in Pacific Heights at 3 a.m., wanting to attack a woman I don’t know because she’s rocking Grace contentedly in her arms. The kids have been home together for two weeks, during which time Augie and I have sleep-walked our way through nighttime feedings. It’s Sunday. Tomorrow Augie returns to work. We’ve told Nicole the night nanny that we’ll take a “trial week.”

In the still hours of early morning, Grace’s newborn cry propels me out of bed. “They’re up,” I yell and shove Augie awake. In an instant, I’m fully alert, making a beeline for the twins’ bedroom.

“Night nanny,” Augie grumbles just as I turn the corner and see Grace’s crib. Its emptiness devastates me, and I backtrack to the kitchen, looking for my daughter. When I find her warmly ensconced in Nicole’s arms, sleepily guzzling a bottle, it takes everything I have not to knock Nicole down, to take Grace back. Never before have I felt this primal possessiveness, this visceral certainty that another person is mine and mine alone. “She’s mine,” I want to whisper, my head slowly rotating around my neck like Linda Blair’s.

“Everything okay?” Nicole asks, an eyebrow raised quizzically. “Yeah, yeah,” I mutter. “I just heard Grace cry. I need to pump.” “Then go back to sleep,” Nicole advises. “Let me do my job.”

I want to scream that taking care of Grace is MY JOB. To tell her to get out of MY HOUSE. Instead, I pick up the cold silicon cups of my breast pump and promise myself that in the morning I’ll fire Nicole.

As it turns out, Nicole ends up working for us for five months.

Even with her help, I’m close to catatonic in my exhaustion. At the end of the year, when I’m drowning in final papers, sleeping on my father’s floor with the twins as I renovate our kitchen so we can sell the flat,? my colleague Roseanne asks politely, “who is your son named after?”

It’s mid-afternoon on the campus of Santa Clara College. Surrounded by palm trees, the sun shines down on us with the brightness of the South Bay.

I look at Roseanne in confusion. I’m on my way to teach my third class of the day, yet I cannot seem to track this conversation, to understand.

“Your son?” Roseanne prompts. “August? It’s an unusual name?”

“Yes, yes, it is.” I stall. As if my brain were frozen fingers, I’m trying to grasp the key to her question, but I keep dropping it on the ground. I know that I know the answer, but all that come up is blanks, fumbles.

“I have no idea.” I confess, after a lengthy silence.

“Get some sleep.” Roseanne laughs and pats me on the back.

As I look ahead to my last summer with my children, I often return to my memories of the early days of motherhood. My desire to be the only person to take care of my children hasn’t changed much in eight years, but my stamina has. I know a different exhaustion now — the chipping away of my reserves that happens in the wake of more tantrums and emergency room visits than I can count.

The first days and then weeks of my last summer at home pass quickly, startling in their shimmering heat. There’s been no spring this year. We’ve transitioned almost immediately from the forced-air claustrophobia of winter to the soupy stillness of August. All Gus and Grace want to do is swim, and I spend hours poolside, squinting like a naked mole rat beneath my umbrella.

Their summer is different from those of my childhood. In Philadelphia, we lock our doors. There’s no witch hazel, no fans, no above-ground pool, no Dr. Scholl’s. On the rare moments when we’re at home in the 100 plus degree weather, we remain hermetically sealed inside our air conditioning. The smell of chlorine permeates everything, even the sheets we sleep on at night. In the childhood I remember, we were always hot, dirty, and sweaty. For a long time, my family couldn’t afford to belong to a pool, so Tamsen and I sat for hours on the top of our swing set, staring over the fence forlornly at the Cioffis who stood chest deep, the blue skin of their above-ground pool wrinkling around them as they splashed.

June and then July pass, and still I refuse to search for a nanny, even though I know that Detective Brody could be calling any day. Innate ambivalence combines with sunburned days to breed apathy. It’s an impossible dilemma: I want to go back to work, but I don’t want someone else to take care of my children. My children drive me crazy, so I want a career outside the home.

When I start my research, I scroll through entry after entry of energetic college students and start to get excited. I’m the first to admit that sometimes I’m a horrible mom. I yell. A lot. My kids often have McDonald’s for lunch and dinner. I scream. I criticize them for accidental mistakes. As I read about all these wonderful caregivers, I start to believe that I might be able to hire someone who is better at this. Someone who won’t care when my daughter starts to lob stale French fries and pieces of old hamburger at Gus’s head when he gets upset in the car. Someone who won’t roll her eyes when Gus melts down, for the third time that week, because I remain absolutely steadfast in my refusal to buy him a pygmy donkey.

The candidate I hire will be a better me. The mother I could be if I didn’t actually have to live with my children. I email bubbly candidate after candidate, yet none of them responds. “Sorry, I’ve been down the shore for the week,” one replies breezily, weeks after I make contact. More often than not, I’m the victim of the single emoticon text message, or worse, “call me if you want to talk!” Drowning under a plethora of smiley faces, I don’t want to talk and I’m starting to hate this generation of college students.

The women who respond immediately are older, their children grown. Astounded that sixty-something grandmotherly types are more responsive on social media than twenty-somethings, I worry that Gus and Grace will eat them alive, then build a fort around their corpses.

With less than six weeks left in the summer, I decide to meet Martha, one of the grandmotherly types, at Build-A-Bagel in Jenkintown. I arrive early and order a latte. The day is already a scorcher, and tributaries of sweat fan down the inside of my arms. Sitting on my stool, I realize I look a bit of a mess. My shorts are covered in dog drool, and my shirt has a huge stain under the right boob, as if I were lactating jam.

Rain swept in overnight, a sudden violent downpour, and now the parking lot shimmers, the cooler puddles evaporating into steam before my eyes. An unremarkable Ford Focus pulls cautiously into the lot, and I do a double-take as the driver makes her way gingerly into the coffee shop. Surely this cannot be Martha. While this woman looks lovely, exuding an almost subliminal smell of home-baked cookies and snuggles, she’s too old. Too slow. Too fragile.

“Martha?” I ask, trying to keep the despair out of my voice.

“Megan?” She tilts her head sideways for a brief moment before enveloping me in a hug. Her bag knocks against my stomach, and I notice that it’s in the shape of a quilted elephant, while her wallet is a stuffed giraffe. Everything about Martha feels padded and soothing. In an instant I know she’s not the nanny for Gus and Grace. My children will break her.

Even though it’s broiling out, we choose to sit beneath an umbrella instead of shivering in the cold air conditioning.

“I can sit in the sun,” I tell Martha. She’s pasty white, her face elfin in its intensity.

“Tell me about yourself,” I encourage. I’m not afraid of getting sunburned, but I’m annoyed by the sweat that has settled in a damp pool above my underwire.

“Well,” Martha smiles softly. “I have four boys.”

“Wait, what?” I lean forward, trying to find signs on her serene face of the warfare that must, by definition, accompany life with four boys.

“Yes.” She wraps a world of pride into that single word.

“How old?”

“Twenty-seven, twenty-five, twenty-three, and nineteen.”

“Oh. My. God.” I shake my head in disbelief, and she opens her arms wide, her body living proof of the accomplishment.

“There really isn’t anything your kids can hit me with that I haven’t already experienced,” she announces, her brown eyes suddenly razor sharp. “Stitches, broken bones, birth control, you name it, I’ve seen it.”

“Gus just got a cast off for two broken bones in his arm,” I confess. “It was one of the singularly worst moments in my life as a parent.”

Martha’s eyes widen in sympathy and she touches my forearm briefly. “Did the bone come through the skin?”

“No, thank God.” I frown at this sickening image. “But I still felt completely nonfunctional.? As if I were moving through cement.”

“I know that feeling,” Martha commiserates. The sun is climbing quickly through the sky, and she now has to squint across the table to see me.

“Are you getting burned?” I ask. “Let’s switch chairs.” We move, beginning a dance around the table that lasts for our ninety-minute meeting.

“Thanks,” she sighs, rubbing her freckled white hands. “Good that the bone didn’t come through the skin. That happened to my son.” She smiles in self-deprecation. “I still don’t think I’ve recovered from that one!”

“Well, that makes me feel a little bit better,” I confide, then realize how callous I sound. All of a sudden, we’ve gone from a perfunctory conversation to me caring about her opinions. “I mean, not that he was hurt, but that another mom struggled. You know what I mean.”

“Sure,” she nods. “I get it. But you do what you have to do. You go to the hospital. You muscle through the panic.”

“Exactly,” I sigh. “Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with any broken bones—”

?— “Hopefully not,” she agrees. “But my four are living proof that I can.”

“And Gus and Grace are eight,” I remind her with a chortle. “They still take baths together. So, you shouldn’t have to deal with birth control.”

“That,” she points a finger at me in emphasis, “was one of MY worst parenting moments.”

I lean back against the hot metal rungs of my chair, waiting for the tangent, for the story to come. Although I’ve only just met her, I realize that these sideways conversations are part of Martha’s very fabric.

“I got home from work early one day,” Martha rubs her eyes, still incredulous at the story she’s about to cross-stitch for me. “And I heard my son having sex in his room.”

“Oh God.” This is about as far from my current conception of parenthood as you can get.? “How old was he?”

“I dunno. It was so long ago. Now, let me think.” She rubs her temple again, as if trying to massage the answer out of her head. “Maybe sixteen?”

“Okay,” I encourage, astounded that we’re having this conversation during an interview. I’m blunt, but this is frank, even for me.

“I didn’t really care that he was having sex,” she explains. “I was worried he was having unprotected sex. So I marched up to his room, flung open the door, and yelled, ‘show me the condom.'”

I spit out my latte between gasps of laughter. “You. Did. Not.”

“Oh, yes I did,” she declares defiantly, putting her hands on her hips.

“Good for you. But wow. Just wow.”

“In retrospect,” she circles back a bit. “I might have gone overboard a little in my reaction. But ever since they were about ten years old, I’d told my boys to use condoms. I absolutely was not having a teenage pregnancy in my house.”

“I’m surprised he ever had sex again,” I comment.

“Well, that’s what I mean about going overboard. I only have one grandson now. And I’m pretty sure it’s because of that moment.”

“That would do it for me.” I smile at her in appreciation.

“On the other hand,” she winks at me conspiratorially. “He did have a condom, and we never had a teenage pregnancy.”

“So there’s a method to the madness.”

“Exactly. I taught my boys well.”

“When can you start?” I demand.

“That’s it?” Her whole body becomes still, astonished.

“Well, I need to check your references, but yes. I’m sure.” Someday, I hope that I will be able to tell her, “you had me at the condom story.” All my life, I’ve dealt in stories — telling my own, consuming those of other people. And here’s a woman who stitches everything she is and wants to be into her stories. There’s no pretense, no warming up period. Just take me as I am, from day one.

“Second week in August?” she offers. “Perfect.”

We hug goodbye, and I watch her move deliberately through the parking lot.

Inside my Tahoe, the hot seats leave welts on the backs of my legs. The warm smell of crushed crayons stifles me, and I open the windows and wait for the car to cool. Seldom has one of my first impressions been so wrong. Beneath her grandmotherly exterior, Martha is a battle axe. While my mother might denigrate full-time motherhood, I don’t know if there is any better recommendation for a nanny than having four sons. Who are still living. I certainly would have drowned one of them before adulthood.

As I wait for my car to cool, the vents blasting, Martha’s description of her son’s broken arm superimposes itself onto my experience with Gus, and I burst into tears. For perhaps the first time since Augie started working two hundred miles from home, I feel as if I might not have to go it alone. This is what it feels like to have backup, I think, wiping my tears from my cheeks. Driving out of Jenkintown, I’m happy. The mere idea that someone might be there to share the psychic responsibility of parenthood is overwhelming. I don’t know what it is like to sit with another adult in the doctor’s office waiting room, to depend on someone who is less than a three-hour drive away, even if it’s for something as simple as watching the children while I escape to the store to get a gallon of milk because I have only just realized we’ve run out and they’re screaming again for pygmy donkeys.

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About Megan Williams

Megan Williams lives in Philadelphia with her husband, her twins, two bunnies, two mastiffs, two cats, and no pygmy donkeys. "Broken Bones and Pygmy Donkeys" is part of a longer work which describes the two years she spent applying to the Philadelphia Police Academy. Previous to this, she taught English and Film at Santa Clara University.

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