I’ve been on the front porch looking for my son since the first dark clouds moved in. Mikey’s always been afraid of storms. And now here he comes, making the squeaky sound I know is fear, running all the way with his hands cupped together. Not easy for a boy with clumsy feet.
“Friend. Save,” he tells me.
He opens his hands and there’s a little fish with bent fins.
I’m behind on the dishes—every bowl and Tupperware in the kitchen is sitting somewhere on the counter or in the sink gunked with old food. I grab the dog dish, refill it with clean water.
“Does he have a name?” I ask.
“Mikey,” he says, dropping it into the bowl.
Mikey’s had tutors since he turned four. Tutors for speech, for large motor skills, and more recently for help socializing. He sits at a lunch table at school with other kids who are lost in the world of long hallways, playgrounds and rules. He used to stand near boys he wanted to play with and shout, “Mikey!” I’d cry when I heard these stories and hate the boys who made him feel so lonely.
Lately he’s supposed to practice being in safe crowds but not interacting, just getting comfortable with the noise and the movement. He’s supposed to watch other kids play but not stare. He’s still struggling with this, not staring, not being the kid others notice for the wrong reasons.
His tutor told him, “Just watch the fish in the pond and listen to the noises of the playground. And if you can, don’t talk out loud to the fish, only in your head.”
I send him to the park if other mothers are there to watch him. They promise to call me if I need to hustle up there. But we let him believe he goes to the park alone.
The playground and pond are visible from our kitchen window. It’s why we paid a fortune for this house, thinking this was the perfect spot for raising kids. After Mikey, after seeing the heartbreak of not fitting in, of not having feet that will skip or hands that will clap together, of not having a tongue or lips that can sound out words without lots of concentration, we decided not to have a second. Not now anyway. We want so badly to make the world a welcoming place for Mikey. We want so badly to be the great, protective, nurturing parents we dreamed we’d be. Every day, I feel cruel for asking Mikey to go out there again where he hurts so badly.
Mikey the fish is slowly swimming and sometimes rolling on his side in the dog dish.
“I never the thunder scared save him,” he says.
“You saved him from the thunder?” I ask, because this is what the tutor tells us to do, to put his words in a sensible order, to add a few better words, because maybe he’ll learn that way. Although maybe he won’t.
He is nodding and crying. He saved Mikey the fish. You can see it in his face and shoulders now. He saved Mikey the fish from the thunder, goddamnit, even though he was scared enough to wet himself.
I want this fish to live more than I’ve wanted anything since we first looked at Mikey through the NICU window with his tubes and sticky squares and giant knit cap as big as his whole head.
Please, please live.
When you’re pregnant, you think you want a perfect, healthy child. But when he’s born all small and funny with crossed eyes and veins showing through his teeny limbs, you want no one but that baby. You want to make everything and everyone in the world slow down and be tender to that one who you love more than you thought it was possible to love. You want him to have a friend and to laugh with kids who aren’t laughing at him. You want him to say something and have someone understand what he means. You want to see other kids wait for him when he falls on his clumsy feet and not have to pick himself up alone while the others keep going.
Lightning zig zags across the sky and we count with dread for the thunder that terrifies my child. It helps when he expects it. Helps a little.
I open my arms, thinking he’ll want to be held through the noise that seems to thrash him from the inside, but he races to the dog dish and scoops out Mikey. Today he is the protector. Today he’s made and possibly killed his first friend.
We hold each other, the three of us, through the rumbling.
“I think Mikey the fish may need to sleep for a while,” I tell him. “Shall we all nap for now?”
And he wants this, letting the fish slip down his hands and thunk into the water.
“There, sleepy little guy,” I say to the fish that makes my child so happy and full of empathy.
I take my boy into my arms and we curl up like we often do on the couch. He still fits there under my arm but not easily. We’re not as comfortable as we were when he was smaller and didn’t feel he’d tumble off the couch.
He’s breathing calmly. Safe now. And maybe thinking how brave he was, how he rescued a friend. And I am thinking, how can I save Mikey from one more stab to the heart?
I have much to do during Mikey’s nap, slipping out from behind him, finding the fish at the bottom of the bowl as I feared. I am crying as I rush around in sock feet, trying to build the universe as I want it to exist.
Mikey’s father comes through the door before our son wakes up. I used to call Mikey’s father Tim. I used to call him my husband. And then, because his role in our lives, the only one that really matters anymore, is about being Mikey’s God in a cruel world that needs constant intervention and rescuing, this is the only name that feels right.
He lets the dog off the leash. He takes it to work these days because his boss has a soft spot for Mikey and knows he is still learning how to pet gently, and we can’t supervise these two around the clock. The dog laps up water in the bowl that is free of the little friend of a fish. And Mikey’s father means to kiss my cheek, but I’m still bustling about the room, and the kiss only brushes my shoulder.
Mikey bursts into the room, wakened by the jingle of dog tags. He grabs fistfuls of fur and skin on the dog’s back, delight showing on his face. His father lifts him high in the air as Mikey spurts out words in his scrambled order, telling him of his friend and the thunder and the rescue, and come look.
But there is only a note left by the fish. And a daffodil given in thanks. Greatest friends ever. You saved my life. I picked you this flower. After I woke from my nap, I had to get home to the pond at the park for dinner. We will play again.
Mikey sulks because he can’t show his father his new friend. But the note, the note that says life is improving, he’s holding that tight.
I’m chewing my thumbnail down to the nail bed. I’m looking at Mikey’s father and saying, Please don’t break this spell. Please don’t crush him.
We have arguments more and more at night. How my fear of Mikey getting hurt is going to cause bigger problems down the road. That the world I keep creating for him, the world that always works in Mikey’s favor, that always makes him the hero, that takes away the constant loss and loneliness is going to make him strange. It’s going to make him someone with weird thoughts. We’ll fight again tonight, I’m sure of it. But for this moment, Mikey is a hero and Mikey has a friend, and I would rearrange the whole world to see this smile he’s showing us, this look on his face that he is loved and he belongs.
Susan Henderson is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. Her debut novel, Up from the Blue, was published by HarperCollins in 2010 and has been selected as a Great Group Reads pick (by the Women’s National Book Association), an outstanding softcover release (by NPR), a Prime Reads pick (by HarperCollins New Zealand), a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness), a 2012 Book Club Choice (by the American Library Association), and a favorite reads feature on the Rosie O’Donnell show. Susan blogs at LitPark.com and is finishing her second novel.