By Lisa Cohn
My daughter, Ally, was two when she began grabbing her 11-year-old brother by the belt and begging him to stay.
"Travis is mine," she'd yell at my ex-husband, Tripp, when he stopped by to take Travis over to his house for the night. "You can't take him with you," she'd say, firmly planting her feet as if to signal he couldn't get by this sister's Stride Rite sneakers, pink ankle socks and purple-flowered dress.
Every week, Ally scrunched up her face and locked her hold on Travis in place by slipping her index finger through a belt loop of his blue jeans.
And every week Travis murmured, "Hey, Ally, it's okay." He raised his hands, searching first his Dad's face, then mine with wide brown eyes trimmed with thick dark eyelashes. He touched the leaf-shaped beauty mark on his left cheek, then tenderly reached for his half-sister's little hand.
He crouched down on his knees. "I'll be back, Ally," he promised.
I turned away, trying to hide the burning sensation in my chest. I wanted to latch onto his belt loop too. Like my daughter, I longed to stamp my feet so hard my socks dropped around my ankles. I wanted to holler at the top of my lungs, "This isn't fair!"
By that time, nine years of practice at being divorced was supposed to have prepared me for this moment, the moment of separation from my son. I was supposed to sigh with relief at the parenting break Travis's visit with his dad would afford me. I was supposed to feel fortunate for all my blessings in divorce: Travis had a dad who loved him and was always there for him. I got along with my ex. What's more, my new partner, Ally's dad, was a great stepfather for my son. And Travis had a crowd of steprelatives at his Dad's house that adored him.
No matter; like Ally, I wanted to melt into a mish-mash of limbs on the floor, sobbing that I wanted Travis by my side.
I missed him then, when he was 11 and still held my hand as we jogged to the playground after school and launched into a game of one-on-one basketball. I miss him now that he is 16 and has begun to shave. The ache follows me, like a shadow, and I try not to outrun it or hide from it.
Yesterday, I missed picking him up from school and hearing how he convinced five kids he possessed Latin American blood. I missed his complaints about the organic wheat-and-turkey sandwich that I prepared specially for him. His daily confession that he had offered my sandwich to some street people and headed for McDonald's at lunchtime—I missed that, too. I missed the tongue lashing I get when I nag him to complete his math, which is often followed by a request to come close, to help him in some way, like checking the legs of his jeans to see if they smell like his little sister's peanut butter-smeared hands.
I miss the smell of his gym shoes when he yanks them off and deposits them on my desk. I long to hear the constant sound of rap, soul and rock music and the beautiful voice that sings along. At night, I miss the scent of sweat and spicy deodorant when he wraps his arms around me before bedtime. How he plays "Name That Tune" with Ally just before he kisses her good-night.
When I feel this way, I often pick up the phone and call his dad. I ask if Travis got off to school okay. I find an excuse to chat about his academics; I inform his dad that he aced an English exam. When the hurt feel unbearable, I dial the number to Travis's cell phone and leave a message reminding him to take his vitamins.
I don't talk much about missing my son. Because it always leads to the same thoughts, the same conversations. Nearly 14 years ago, when I headed for divorce, I never dreamed that this missing would become my silent companion. If I had known, 14 years ago, about how I would long to have my son by my side, would I have acted or chosen differently?
Could I have acted differently?
"Where's Travis?" asks Ally, when I pick her up from school.
"He's at his Dad's."
"I miss him," she says, just as she's said every Wednesday since she could talk.
"I miss him, too," I say, and open my cell phone.
I'll just leave him a quick message asking if he wants to coach Ally's soccer team on Saturday. I'll remind him to eat lots of protein before he runs cross-country with his friends. I'll hang up. I'll feel a little better. Then I'll embrace my silent companion, and take it home with me for a long night.
Lisa Cohn is co-author of One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice For Stepfamilies, a 2004 Gold National Parenting Publications Award winner.