I’d only started to sweep the garage when I felt it: a sharp poke on top of my knuckle. I jostled my glove free of my fingers. Curled in a pea-sized ball atop my hand was a black spider, her belly stamped with that red hourglass nobody wants to see.
In thirty seconds I could feel the venom seep through the cells of my palm. The crook between my fingers felt damp and hot. This odd crushing sensation in bones, tendons, muscle.
Internet medical data always makes me anxious. It’s probably nothing to worry about. But in some cases, it’s an emergency. I learned that black widow venom is fifteen times stronger than rattlesnake venom. Though babies are probably in dire straits if they’re bitten, adults might feel severe abdominal pain and difficulty breathing.
Patrick joked, “Well. It’s been nice knowing you.”
I pressed a block of blue ice into my palm. My husband listened to me moan about how I’d done so many things wrong over the years, how sucky it would be if my life ended in an hour. Though it passed the time, my whine-y outpour didn’t erase the ache and heat and pressure in my hand, and the suspicious tightening in the center of my armpit.
My son, Jack, and I both get restless about unforeseen events, but he’s the one wary of spiders. The day of my spider bite he came home to Tucson after spending the summer with his father. We had five days to put all the nuts and bolts in place so he could leave for college.
I’ve had eighteen years to imagine the day that door closes. In theory I knew the young Jack-who-hated-spiders would become the Jack-who-left-home. But it’s rumored that sons don’t just leave, they go far, as in-- to the ends of the earth. Patrick never lived anywhere near his parents after graduate school. Jack’s father traded his sweet England town for a life in metro Phoenix. My brother married in South Africa and now lives in Wales. It seems to me our mothers must have felt bitter. Or helpless. Or sad. So it’s understandable why I feared joining their group. How could I possibly scale back the mothering?
These things had been bothering me the day I found that spider in my glove. The day Jack and I would start to pull together and pack up his teenage life, and haul it toward the blue unknown of college.
Monday I took a smiley photo of him holding up his new drivers’ license. Tuesday we wandered through Target and Tucson Mall. Wednesday we dined at Za’atar, then giggled over Mad Libs. Thursday Jack shelved, boxed or tossed out all his belongings. Afterward, he looked dreary, so we talked. I gave him back his aqua-blue calcite and obelisk-shaped crystal he’d given me years before. When I need to feel grounded, I told him, I carry my favorite stones.
Each day stretched through that spacy, abnormal time where nothing seems real, and everything is potent. Many times I heard You matter, Mom and Thank you so much and I’m sorry to bother you and This is hard for me.
My hand continued to ache like a menstrual cramp struggling toward a crescendo. The pain made it hard to hold my fingers or palm comfortably in any position. That the bite was dead center on my writing hand concerned me; what important messages had black widow injected into my flesh?
On Friday Jack and I drove south. He tuned the radio to a pop station. We talked about comedians, and a Michael Jackson video he thought I should watch. For two hours we stood in lines in the apartment lobby before unloading his truckload of stuff. I let him have the afternoon to unpack in silence.
At home I whirled around the kitchen in an agitated state. I was a mother soon to be fired. What should I have taught this kid? What can I shove into him in these final hours? I felt this fear, like the water level’s rising, the sun’s going down, only a little time before he’s a goner. I dug through the junk drawer for castoffs Jack might need. I scrubbed the greasy pizza pan and unloaded the freezer. I scurried around Safeway, then jammed it all into coolers and boxes and bags that rattled the whole drive back to the apartment. By the time I showed up, the sun was setting. Jack looked as bedraggled as I felt.
Immediately I pushed things into his hands. How ‘bout this spoon? It’s a good one. Would you want this spatula? Here’s a colander to drain your pasta. What do you think? Peas? Frozen Turkey Burgers?
Jack’s shoulders had tensed up to his ears. He frowned as he opened cupboards. I held out strawberries, lettuce, baby carrots, bread. Want your old Coke glass? I said. Oh, and here’s some plastic wrap. What do you think about these dishcloths? Hot pads? This neat glass bowl I got you for leftovers?
He said, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. But I didn’t hear this.
I didn’t hear the whine in his voice.
I didn’t step back when the kitchen seemed a little crowded. Or when the fluorescents rained this greenish-blue light. I’d forgotten we’d been going since six in the morning. That Jack hadn’t met his roommate, or figured out his wi-fi. Unbeknownst to me, he was frazzled that his friends were feuding on Facebook. So my final offer—the paring knives, on which I’d cut my finger in the rush to save my son from Armageddon—sent him to the corner of the kitchenette in a scream.
For a few seconds he faced that wall, his back to me. Fists balled at his sides. His skinny body shook. When he turned around, he grasped at his hair and yanked. I heard the soft snap. Time became time from years ago: Like when I’d said no to some toy or going somewhere that cost money. Here was the same frustration that had once caused him to drop to the floor and kick, or peck his forehead against the fireplace brick, or punch the wall he painted gray.
I remembered that thing about the leaving. I started to see the upside down logic in my parade of offers: give it all, in big quantities, for-ever, to ensure I do motherhood right.
Jack said, I’m just… exhausted. Frustrated. I don’t really know what I need. His face was all scrunched up.
So we left the apartment for a drive in the truck. The dusky sun made the mountains purply-orange. Restaurant lights began to blink on. A row of university girls in towels and flip flops strolled along the sidewalk. Jack talked to me. He theorized why the uncertainties weighed so much.
Hands on the wheel, I listened.
These days I see more spiders than I ever have. Because the black widow allowed me to live, and the venom-pain slowly dissolved, I feel it’s my duty to keep my eyes open for messages. What I got so far: Let Jack be. Keep writing. This is a window into what death feels like. Value every speck of life.
Last Sunday I visited Jack. Through the blinds in his living room I could see a bright and empty balcony with a nice view of the Tucson Mountains. It seemed to me a great spot for a break, some fresh air, vitamin D. I asked if he wanted a few patio chairs, maybe.
He’d been doing something in the kitchen, wasn’t looking my way. No thanks, he said, in monotone. Probably lots of spiders out there.
Note: This essay evolved from the same writing process we use in my Listen & Flow classes. If you're curious about this ultra-honest practice, check out my next Listen & Flow series. For details, click here.