“Mama, when are we going home?” he whispered, his eyes glued to the car window. I didn’t know how to answer him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go home. “You miss being home,” I said as a way of deflection.
“Yes,” my son said, quietly, not averting his gaze.
My heart sank. The silence between us grew. His six-year-old self could not understand why I had chosen for us to stay at my brother’s house on the weekends and my friend’s house during the week. In the midst of trying to navigate a summer suddenly fraught with grief, anxiety, and unparalleled demonstrations of early childhood trauma, I did not want to be a single mother. I did not want to be alone.
So in the mornings, after I dropped my son off at summer camp, I’d race back home to shower, check work emails, and then load up on whatever we’d need for that evening. Clean pajamas. New library books. A cheese sandwich, applesauce, and a hardboiled egg for his lunch the next day. I shoved our lives into a revolving set of grocery bags that I carried in and out of homes that were not our own. No matter how hard I tried to preserve some sense of continuity, I always forgot something important.
The upside of this living arrangement was that I had immediate support when things unraveled daily. And we had distraction. My brother took my son on outings early on Saturday mornings so I could sleep. My friend’s son taught him some serious basketball moves. And in the middle of the night when I could no longer soothe my son (or myself, for that matter), my friend interceded and rocked him in the stillness of her living room. A new pattern of nightwakings returned this August with upwards of two to three hours of sleeplessness.
“What are you thinking about?” my friend asked him one night at the two-hour mark.
“My mom,” he replied. “I have to make sure she is still there.”
Having become a family when my son was just shy of three years old, the weight of his six-year-old fear—and depth of abandonment—kept me awake that night. Every doctor, counselor, and adoption specialist I’d sought out said the same thing: “This is what trauma looks like.” Some children weep; others become aggressive. Some, anxious and overly hypervigilant. In order to heal, they said, the pain has to come out. My job was to keep him safe.
Sadly, the downside of our new living arrangement was that we were not at home, the epicenter of his sense of safety. We were no more in our beds than we were at peace within ourselves. His behavior became so wildly unpredictable that I tried to wrestle and nail down every possible trigger. Did my friend have the fruit snacks he loved? Did I bring the right Batman book? Did my brother remember to give him his morning snack? Make him drink water? How could I have possibly forgotten his favorite swim goggles?
More often than not, my anxiety pinned me instead.
That night, lying on the bottom bunk in my friend’s son’s bedroom, I remembered the vow I’d made to God and to myself years ago. I was on a retreat with my church, and we were asked to write adult baptismal vows. It was not an easy task at that juncture in my life. In the end I’d vowed “to come home.” To turn my life in the direction of my heart. And, that direction had led me to the little boy whose head lay on my chest as he (finally) slept.
I remembered how I’d felt in my late thirties, unmoored in my own life, not yet trusting that I was worthy of what I most desired: to write, to have a family, to fall in love. I thought about my son, the tumult of his early years, and the warmth and predictability of our home. That’s when I understood how desperately I wanted him to come home in himself and for us to come home together, again. For us to be who we are as a family. Free to be ourselves: to laugh, to weep, to kick and flail, to fall down and to get back up, to heal.
Two weeks later, I summoned all my courage and my son and I returned home. “Finally,” he said as we walked in the front door. “I’ve been waiting so long.”
It hasn’t always been easy. We’ve had good days and hard days. And some very long nights. But we faced them together, learning as we go. We’ve also had tickle fights, bike rides, and soccer games at the park. In an odd twist of transcendence, my grief and anxiety are slowly dissipating now that school has started. In their place is a deepening sense of gratitude, not for the strife we endured, but for the opportunity to shelter my son’s greatest vulnerability and carry it every so tenderly out into the light where all healing begins.
For a long time this summer, I thought I had lost my son. And our connection. But now I see just how found we were—and held in the embrace of something far bigger than ourselves. We are all walking each other home, back to our truest selves and the heart of God.