Ten Straight Days

by Beverly Donofrio

There are times when I feel as unsure of myself as a grandmother as I felt when I became a mother at seventeen. Take my last visit with my grandson, Zachary, age two–and–a–half. We were off on a walk in Brooklyn, where he lives, when I had to tie my shoe. My son, Jason, had warned me that if I didn’t buckle Zach in securely, he could go flying when the stroller hit a bump. And so I’d followed his instructions, even though it killed my arthritic right hand to fasten those annoying little plastic clips. Times have changed. When Jason was little I could hardly be bothered to put him in his car seat. Usually he stood next to me and when we came to a stop, I stretched my arm against his chest to keep him upright. In 1968, this was not against the law or even uncommon. Neither was sitting your kid on your lap and letting him steer.

My son knows from having me as a mother that I am not careful, cautious or always law–abiding. I don’t resent my son’s assessment, because I know that if it weren’t for the grace of God, the kindness of strangers—and standing on my head to ward off post–menopausal lapses by increasing the blood flow to my brain—I could be a disaster.

In fact, I wished Jason had given me a refresher course on applying the stroller’s brake, because since my last time out with Zach three months before, I’d forgotten how it works. So when I squatted down to tie my shoe, I didn’t apply the brake at all. The stroller rolled a few inches into a tree bed, then tipped over as Zachary, strapped in like an astronaut, screamed.

“Oh, my God,” I gasped. I couldn’t see his face, which was smashed into the tree trunk. I grabbed the carriage, praying that Zach wasn’t hurt, and saw an angry purpling welt forming on his forehead. “Oh my God, sweetheart, are you okay?” I was almost crying. “You must have been terrified. Does it hurt? Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

Seeing how bad I felt, Zach tried to comfort me. “It’s okay,” he mumbled through tears. “I’m okay.”

Of course, when we returned home, I had to confess the incident to his father. Jason is a stay–at–home dad, a good one. He regarded Zach gravely, trying, I could tell, not to be too judgmental of me.

“The tree,” Zach nodded, touching his welt.

It is either an act of faith or a great achievement that my son, an epic worrier, trusts his son with me at all. But it might just be a gamble he’s willing to take now and then to get a break from fulltime childcare. For Christmas the first year of Zach’s life, he and his wife, Jessica, gave me a gift of three trips to New York, with the understanding that I would help out. It was also understood that I would babysit Zachary for ten whole days right after his first birthday, while Jase and Jess took her parents on an Alaskan cruise—their Christmas present.

It did occur to me to wonder how it happened that Jess’s parents got the cruise and I got the babysitting trips. But truly, if given the choice, I would have chosen the babysitting. I lived far away in Mexico at the time and now live far away in a monastery in Colorado, yet I’m determined to know my grandson, to be a regular in his life. For one thing, I want the joy of being around that exuberant kid energy, to see the world fresh and filled with wonder through his eyes. There’s another reason too. When I got pregnant at seventeen, I kicked and screamed, moaned and groaned, and never really took to my role as a mother. During his childhood, Jason was deluded and thought this was okay. “We’re more like brother and sister than mother and son,” we sort of used to brag.

But in his twenties, Jason saw the light—or, I should say, the dark. He became angry and depressed, and for a few years he barely spoke to me. My guilt and pain drove me into the hands of God. I not only asked God to forgive me, I asked my son. We had some tearful talks and therapy sessions. Eventually he fell in love with Jessica and separated from me. As he matured, he began to understand that if he didn’t forgive me, he would be hurting himself most of all. This is not to say that in recent years I haven’t witnessed flashes of rage, or that he’s completely overcome his distrust of me. There’s always more healing to do—which is where my grandson comes in. When I heard that Jessica was pregnant, I saw the baby as a way to redeem myself. By loving Zachary unconditionally, I could prove to my son—and to myself—that I am not selfish and I actually do know how to love.

Why else would a fifty–five–year–old woman, more or less in her right mind, agree to take a one–year–old for Ten Straight Days?

Excerpted from “Needle of the Heart”