How to Park a Mother’s Love
By: Melissa Harper | Date: September 19 2018
It’s rush hour in Queens, and my brother is motionless in the middle of traffic while snow speckles the windshield of his U-Haul. I’m standing in the middle of the only free parking space, screaming at him to throw it in reverse, but I know he can’t hear me above the swell of honking horns and New York swears. One guy makes a show out of rolling down his Mercedes’s window to scream “Move it, son of a —!” before laying on the horn and speeding off.
We’ve been waiting for this spot for over an hour, but I drag myself out of it to run up to the driver’s side. Zack sits inside, his head hanging on his shoulders like a deflated balloon. I tap on the window until it descends. “Hey man, you okay? What’s going on?”
He pinches his eyes closed and shakes his head. I gnaw on my lip. It’d be easier if I take over. He could just slide into the passenger seat and I’d throw it in reverse myself. I could park it for him, like I wish someone had done for me on a similar, snow-stained day a decade ago.
I was only partially in my body when I drove home from Detroit’s Third Circuit courthouse. Our terminally-ill mother had landed herself a permanent placement in a nursing home, but there had still been the issue of Zack. I had just crept into my twenties and bagged my first extremely low-paying job, but my new husband and I had driven our own U-Haul nine hundred miles back to Michigan to attend this custody hearing. Zack was twelve and could fit most of his possessions in a backpack.
Family members lined up beside us in front of the judge. Surely my mother’s beloved siblings would offer to take custody, or perhaps my grandparents, or my aunt? Someone who had been a mother before, who knew how to care for a little boy with a backpack as heavy as his.
“Which one of you will be taking custody of this child?” the judge asked in an almost bored voice, his gaze barely lifting from the paperwork in front of him. No one answered. Murmurs wafted from the edge of the courtroom. My husband squeezed my hand, and I blurted out “I will” before I could think about what exactly those words meant.
After, I swung into the last free parking spot in our new apartment complex. “I’ll be in in a minute,” I told my husband, and he left me with the car running in the cold. I leaned over the steering wheel and pinched the bridge of my nose. Zack’s permanent custody paperwork balanced precariously on the dashboard. How could anyone expect me to do this when I hadn’t been mothered myself? Even before she was sick, my mother had been absent—in both body and mind. There were bar-nights and long work hours, and when she was home, she’d often dismiss me in favor of the a phone cradled between her ear and freckled shoulder.
You’re just going to have to do it, I told myself. There was no other choice but to try.
I pulled the keys out of the ignition. The car fell into a slumber as I walked away from it.
A fleet of horns blare behind us. Someone aggressively jerks their truck forward. I flick him off and turn back to the window. Zack pinches the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t do this. There’s too much traffic. I can’t back up in that spot. I can’t—“
“Zack, look at me.” He drops his hand and glances at me with a quivering lip.
“You can do this,” I say slowly, deliberately. “You’ve just got to do it.”
He lets out a long, tense breath. I tap his shoulder and add, “I’ll be right here.”
I run back to the spot and start to guide him in. The reverse taillights flick on and the truck starts to rumble. I catch his eye in the review mirror and give him a thumbs-up, even though I’m only about fifty-percent convinced he isn’t going to slam his truck into either of the cars surrounding this parking spot. That has been what mothering him without an example of what a healthy mother’s love should look like: jumping in whole-heartedly, praying that it works out for the best, but recognizing that there’s at least a fifty-percent chance I may cause some damages along the way.
The U-Haul pulls all the way back into the space. It’s a little too close to one of the cars and the wheels ride up on the sidewalk behind us, but it’s good enough.
Zack hops out of the cab, relief blooming on his face, and wraps me in a bear hug that crushes my lungs. In ten years, he’s grown almost a foot taller than me.
“Thank you,” he says. “For everything.”
Andrea Hannah is a traditionally published author (Of Scars and Stardust, Flux) and essayist. Her work has appeared in Motherwell Magazine, The Establishment, and Bustle.You can find her at www.andreahannah.com and on Twitter and Instagram: @andeehannah