They are mostly transitory flickers of images in my mind now. But they’re the only part of him I have left, and I hang onto them as I would a life vest.
Curious, grappling at the carpet as he pulls himself along, approaching his target — Nick reaches out his small hands to grab the white rabbit I once jokingly nicknamed “Bun-Bun.” He misses, and barely clasps the furry tail of the ornery creature as it leaps away. But he laughs without reservation as it escapes.
Then, my mind makes another turn on the sometimes treacherous path of memory.
It’s his first birthday. I don’t have the money to buy him any toys. But I have an idea. I place a decorated cake in front of him where he sits in his highchair, surrounded by linoleum. I motion to him that it’s his to do with as he chooses. His boyish face lights up, and he jams his fingers probingly into the squishy middle — seconds later, face, ears, and even overalls are smeared liberally with the remnants of the obliterated yellow cake. Crumbs and heavy sugary white frosting coat him as he squeals in delight. Mission accomplished.
Flash forward to a few months later. I sit in the driver’s seat of my cheap Plymouth Neon, handing him the occasional McDonald’s french fry, which has become his favorite food. I cannot turn around to face him. But, we connect, as his tiny greasy fingers meet mine, quickly accepting the outstretched treat, and then returning in expectancy of the next.
Further forward still, I show up at the daycare on the Army post where I’m stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. His soon-to-be adoptive parents who are also Soldiers don’t know I’m there. I ache for his small chest pressed against mine in a mother-and-son embrace. I can’t believe it has come to this. I am not ready to be a mom, or at least that’s what their reverse psychological statements, their facade of kindness, slowly eroding my fragile self-esteem, would have me believe.
I try to keep close to me the happiest of memories. During this visit to the daycare facility, for a treasured few moments in time, we are alone. I am still too immature to comprehend the rugged bond that links mother and child. I watch his movements, feeling empty inside, as if I am swimming up for air and cannot find the surface. I still don’t know what I’m doing giving up my rights to these people. Hell, I don’t even know what the right decision is. But I also believe I am so lost I have nothing to offer anyone anyway. Maybe what’s happening is what’s best for him, I tell myself. How can I hope to give my child what I never received for myself?
Suddenly, I break out of my reverie. Nick steps onto the wooden platform from which two short smooth slides extend, one on either side. It hits me that he’s waiting for me to notice. His eyes hone in on nothing but me, and he stands completely still. He reminds me of a tiny old soul transmitting the depths of his thoughts. He grins and swells with pride. With an excited yelp, he lets go, descending effortlessly and bounding back up the steps for more, each time sneaking a peek at me to gauge my approval.
Sadly, it is only at this moment, when all has been lost, that the truth dawns on me. This is love, pure and unconditional. This is Nicholas, my unique and wonderfully wise little one, trying to tell me how much he loves me without saying a word.
Over 10 years later, these images still haunt me. Nick is somewhere out there. I don’t know where. I can only hope he is receiving the kind of love I would have given him, had I not squandered my chance.