When I was in grammar and middle school, my parents would occasionally allow me to skip school for what we affectionately called a “personal day”. These special occasions allowed me rare and memorable alone time with each parent.
Personal days with my mother involved a cultural outing in Manhattan. We saw Picassos at the MOMA, Red Groom at the Marlboro Gallery and Calder at the Whitney. Days with my father were spontaneous adventures to Coney Island, Yonkers Raceway, pool halls and dark, dingy Dim Sum restaurants in Chinatown.
While I wanted to give my son Aidan personal days too, the death of my husband when he was five postponed everything. The year after he died, I bought a drafty carriage house on Staten Island hoping that being closer to my parents and the bucolic setting would help us feel better.
The quiet house, set back in a large patch of woods unnerved me. At night, every creak and sound convinced me that someone was breaking in to further ruin my life. I slept with Dave’s knife tucked under the mattress, wide-eyed and alone. I put on a good face for Aidan who began waking up at night too. He was convinced there were monsters on the roof. After five nights, I grabbed my pillow and joined him in his bed where the sound of chestnuts falling and rolling off our roof, did in fact sound like monsters, or at the very least, someone bowling.
In spite of my concerns about creating some future complex of Shakespearean proportions, I began letting Aidan sleep in my bed. It was quieter in my room and I never slept anyway. My doctor thought my severe insomnia was 9-11 related, but the truth is, I stopped sleeping the moment Aidan was born. It was as if some primitive trigger had been pulled and each night, I was as alert as a lioness on the African plains. Most nights I obsessed about things, my list scrolled across my sleepless mind like a ticker tape: Remember to sign that permission slip for Aidan’s teacher, I have to type the agenda for the medical examiner’s meeting tomorrow, meet with the staff, pick up Aidan, make sure he does his homework while we wait for the guitar lesson. During the guitar lesson make sure you return all those phone calls, make a list, don’t forget the e-mails, dinner, bath, laundry, bills, cleaning. It was the same each night, but watching Aidan sleep calmed me, his face soft in the muted light, his eyelashes fluttering as if being blown by a breeze.
One morning we woke up two hours late, the light sneaking in under the edges of the shade.
“I’m going to be late for school!” Aidan yelled. I sat up panicked, the list echoing in my head, but then I stopped, exhaled and turned to Aidan who had already jumped out of bed.
“Actually, we’re going to take a personal day.”
“Is that private?” Aidan asked.
We took the ferry and then the 1 train to the Museum of Natural History, a place I have not visited for many years. I still remember reading Catcher in the Rye in High school and feeling oddly connected to Holden Caufield when he said of the museum: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. . . . Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.” In the turmoil of my new life, I craved things that remain unchanged.
Aidan chose the gems exhibit where giant sparkling crystals glowed. In the asteroid room, he pretended that we had landed on another planet. I diligently looked shocked, staring open mouthed at the giant stone. When Aidan grew bored of our game, we strolled to the Africa exhibit where Aidan found the hall of monkeys.
“I love monkeys,” he said, staring at the glass cases.
“That’s why I call you my monkey.” I said smiling at a tamarind with a white cottony head.
“They look so real!” Aidan said amazed.
“They are real sweetie,”
I immediately regretted what I said when Aidan looked at me as if I killed off the species myself.
“See, this guy Teddy Roosevelt….he killed them so he could show them to people” I babbled. Aidan was not convinced. “He just killed one of everything so people could see what they looked like and appreciate them.”
“Why didn’t he just open a zoo?” Aidan asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You’re right. It is weird. I guess, back then, hunting was popular. Like Pokeman.”
“I hate Pokeman and it’s mean to kill animals. Look! He killed a baby!” Aidan yelled as he pointed to a baby spider monkey clutching its mother. “Why did you take me to a stuffed zoo?” he asked incredulously.
“It’s a Natural History museum,”
“It’s a STUFFED ZOO,” he repeated. An overweight security guard eyed us and cleared his throat.
“Lets go to the IMAX movie! It’s about elephants!” I said. “You love elephants.”
“I remember like an elephant,” Aidan said quoting the many times Aidan brought up events I had long forgotten.
The IMAX screen was enormous, a perfect size for the mammoth pachyderm. Aidan and I sat back in the comfortable seats and watched the pack of elephants, cooing at the lovable baby elephants at the end of the line, their trunks curled around their mother’s tail. I watched Aidan’s profile as he laughed at the baby, teasing his mother with his trunk.
Then, the music shifted and the sound of the narrator’s voice became more serious. “The pack is desperate to find water for if they don’t, they will most certainly die.” The camera followed the baby elephant as it faltered, weakened by hunger and thirst. Distressed, the mother urged the baby to continue on, even pushing him from behind. Deeply communal, the other elephants joined her in a moving effort to keep the baby elephant going. The violins swelled making it obvious the baby couldn’t move and would most certainly die. I cried watching the mother elephant rock back and forth having to make the Sophie’s choice to continue with the herd or remain with her baby.
“I want to go home” Aidan said as the baby elephant collapsed to its knees, the herd disappearing into a cloud of dust. I guided Aidan out of the darkened theater, past the Tyrannosaurus Rex and out onto the street. Aidan’s hand was clammy and warm as I walked us back toward the subway. “Why did the mother leave him?” he asked after a long silence.
“She had no choice. She had to leave or she would die too.” I said. “Its nature, sweetie.” I stopped then realizing Aidan was crying. “Oh sweetie.” I said squatting down to hug him, his head dropping heavily onto my shoulder.
“I want to go to school tomorrow!” Aidan wailed and I sighed.
“Okay.” I said kissing his head. I stood up and we continued, Aidan wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
“You know, if I were a mommy elephant…” I said “I would stay with you.”
Aidan looked up at me, his eyes wide and brown.
“Really,” I said with confidence, because I knew I would.