Nighttime Mothering

Jennifer Knickerbocker essays

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A cry out in the night. Whimpering turns to desperate screams.

I hear it, but I don’t really want to hear it. It is dark and cold and my bed is warm and soft.

I throw my feet out off the side of the bed, as I grab my cell phone and give it a tap to light my way down the hall. The screaming sounds like death. Gruesome images flash in my mind. Broken limbs? Anaphylactic reaction? Chest pounding, I rush to the door and open it. My silhouette is recognized in the doorway and the screaming instantly stops. 

Once again, I cradle my child’s head against my heart in the wee hours. I rock gently to soothe my tear soaked baby back to sleep. My bare feet touch the cold, hardwood floors in rhythmic movement. My back starts to ache and my arms quiver from the strain, but I don’t stop moving until I am sure it is safe to put him down, so that he doesn’t notice he is no longer in my embrace.

I am tired.

As I make my way back to bed for the third time this night, images of my own mother dance through my mind. Was she there for me when I cried out in the night?

I was sixteen and I was angry with my mother. She and I had not been on speaking terms for a while, even though she didn’t know it. She had abandoned me. She did not show up to my school events, she didn’t know my friends names, and she didn’t care if I came home at two o’clock in the morning. She had a new infant to wake in the night with, and her new husband. I was left to cry it out on my own. So, I lied to her that night. “Going to the movies, mom.”

Instead, I got into a 1978 yellow Peugeot, packed with teenaged girls, and Old English 800, and headed up a long abandoned logging road that ran alongside a cliff, hanging over the Snake River. The 40 minute switch back ride up the hill promised a kegger party at the top.

Or chauffeur was 16-years-old. A girl named Dorothy. She had just gotten her driver’s license. Her face beamed at every twist and turn the road made, like she was playing the latest Atari game. But she wasn’t at all familiar with navigating on slippery gravel. Sometimes our back tires didn’t go straight as our front tires turned a harsh corner.

Our car fell off a cliff. Twenty feet below it was caught by the only cedar left on the clear-cut logging road. The fall threw my friend, Jana, from the car and her arm was pinned under the left front tire, broken, but keeping her from falling to her death. The children that remained in the car with me, although mildly injured, were covered in my blood. My face and torso slammed through the dash and front windshield, shattering the glass with my cheek bones and rib cage. 

Screams in the night for our mothers.

Out of a dead sleep, in the darkness, a ringing. My mother reached out to the sound, startled, as her feet hit the cold floor for the third time that night; but this time, it wasn’t the scream of her infant. The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Your daughter Jennifer, is in the ER. Hurry, we don’t know if she will make it.” My mother rushed out of the house, forgetting all details of the phone call. Gruesome images flashed through her mind as she drove.

Because I had lied to my mother and told her I went to the movies, she went to the wrong ER demanding to see her baby girl, who wasn’t there. Confused, she went to another ER, and yet another, until she found me.

She was too late. I had already left my broken body behind to become one with the light. Surrounded in a warm glow that comforted me in a divine embrace, I felt no pain, just…love.

I looked down on naked body lying on a gurney. I watched a frantic emergency room doctor and three nurses pump an air bag on my face and do chest compressions while a blaring EKG flat lined. There was panic in the room.

Just then, my mother burst through the ER double doors, exhausted, yelling, “My baby, my baby!” In an instant, my breath was back with a painful force, and I cried out for my mother.

She stayed by my side for days, picking the glass out of my face with tweezers for hours, feeding me ice chips, and telling me that everything would be OK, only slipping out of the room when I didn’t realize that I was no longer in her embrace.

The night comes. Mothers get up and go to their children. My babies cry out for me and I cry out for my mother. It never stops being important. But it is more than that. Sometimes it feels like life and death and mothers help us choose life.

About the Author

Jennifer Knickerbocker

With four boys close in age, Jennifer Knickerbocker is the type of mom who opens the mini-van door, and stuff spills out all over the ground. She is the president of a non-profit organization, a diversity leader and trainer, a human resource professional, a volunteer, a student, an artist, a writer and poet, a feminist, a proud Anishinaabe Native American, and sometimes, a stay-at-home-mom. And that is just for starters.

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