I was in a bathroom stall with Mihiretu the other day, waiting to wipe his butt.
Happily, Mihiretu's is the only ass I'm wiping these days, beyond my own. The girls, too, until they were five or so, required both my presence and assistance with defecation. And somehow they, like their brother, generally felt the urge when a grimy, public restroom was the only available facility. I have spent far too much of the past eight years watching children poo in disgusting places.
However, they tend to talk on the toilet. I've gotten more insight into my children's psyches in the bathroom then probably any other place.
The other day, while I stood crammed into the stall at the park, mouth-breathing, toilet paper already wadded in hand, Mihiretu and I somehow got on the topic of babies growing in mamas' bellies. It's not the first time it's come up and, as in the past, I explained the phenomenon in general and then addressed Mihiretu's specific experience, which of course is where his interest lies. I said that while his sisters grew in my tummy, he had another mama. It was in her belly that he grew and she was his mama when he was a baby, when he lived in Ethiopia. Then he came here and I got to be his mama. I have yet to broach the idea of her death. How do you explain that to a four-year-old?
"What she like?" he asked, brow furrowed, hands gripping the hem of his shirt, elbows on knees.
"Well," I said, navigating carefully, "I never knew her."
He looked at me doubtfully.
"But she looooved you." I said. "She nursed you," I held an imaginary baby Mihiretu in my arms and rocked him back and forth, "and she held you..."
His eyebrows lowered menacingly. "I like dat mama," he said. "I no like you."
"Well," I said, "I can see that. I sure love you, though."
"I no like you!" he insisted, leaning forward precariously.
"Okay, honey," I said, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder. "You done pooping?"
"No!" he said, shrugging away from my hand, his lower lip jutting.
He, like the girls did in their day, likes to hold me captive in the stinky bathroom. Even if he's long done with his business, he likes to hang around, either to witness my misery or to keep my focus on him, or, probably, both. I have to create incentives to move the show along.
"Your new friend's out there waiting for you," I said. "You want to get on top of the monkey bars with him again?"
He gave it some thought, twirling his shirt hem around one finger.
"Ohhh-kay," he said finally, clearly doing me a big favor. I was allowed to wipe him, pull up his pants and wash his hands. Lucky me.
Virtually every time we've talked about Mihiretu's birth mom, he's insisted that he prefers her, that "udder mama". I don't know how deep that goes. Is it simply a way to reject me, thereby protecting himself from being hurt again? Does he on some level remember her? He was under two when she died and he seems to remember nothing else about Ethiopia but he must still mourn her, at least subconsciously.
I do know this: at two, my girls knew their mama. We knew every cell of each other. If I had disappeared at that point - and I can't even write that without a wave of heartbreak for what, thank god, didn't happen - they would carry me on with them. And, no matter how loving the home they ended up in, I would always be mama number one.
I wish I had known Mihiretu's birth mother. Because I know him so well, because I love him so much, it seems like I do know her. He was loved, deeply loved before he came to us. He might be a porcupine of defenses but underneath is a boy that knows what it is to be cherished. She is my sister-mother, in a way. I'm picking up where she had to leave off. Together we're fostering the best little person we can. I imagine her, a tall, slender, sloe-eyed ghost, standing alongside me as we watch him scamper off to conquer the monkey bars.
I feel such anguish for him. For her. That they didn't get to be together. That through the violent inequity between the developing world and the developed, through something as simple as a lack of clean water, their little family was ripped apart.
I get it, I have to say. I get that he likes "dat mama", that instead of this strange white woman that often doesn't understand him, verbally and psychically, he could have the mother he was born to. The mother that cradled him as a peaceful infant, that marveled over his perfect fingers and toes. A mother who, undoubtably, was overcome with a surge of the purest, most complete love when she first held him, as I did when I first held Mae and Lana.
My own mother was my first great love. There was no better place than in her lap, thumb in my mouth, letting the sound of her voice, her laughter, roll over me. I think back to that mother, "dat mama", so different than the mother I know now, the mother that doesn't remember my name. The only thing she does remember is that she loves me. Everything else has burned away and what's left is the essential precipitate of love. I appreciate that love. I don't know what I'll do when it's gone. But I desperately miss that "udder mama", the one that knew me so deeply.
I don't know who's in charge. I don't know who dreamed up Alzheimers or dysentery. I do know that Mihiretu mourns his mama and so do I. Our "udder mamas" are gone. We don't have them but we do have each other. That'll have to do.