I wake up to the dreamy sound of our eight-year-old yawning. The irresistible child-of-the-cosmos look on his face instantly releases some primordial cocktail of biochemical adoration inside me. Before I’ve had a chance to wonder what he’s doing in our bed, I pull him in for a hug.
“Ugh,” he groans after a few seconds, wriggling free of my embrace and reaching toward the ceiling. His red and blue Mario Kart pajamas rise over his belly.
My husband—freshly shaven and suited up for work—enters the room.
“Rise and shine!” he calls out, opening the blinds. Light streams in.
Our son collapses face down on the mattress.
“How’d you end up in our bed, anyway?” I ask.
“Bad dream,” he says, the words muffled by a pillow. “I don’t remember it.”
We cuddle for a moment, though I know better than to use the word cuddle out loud. He’s way too old for cuddling. Hugging may be tolerated; cuddling is strictly forbidden.
My husband circles the bed and gives each of us a quick squeeze.
“Have a great day,” he says.
“On purpose,” my son and I respond on cue.
At our son’s elementary school, the principal tells all 148 kids to “have a great day on purpose” over the intercom every morning. We’ve ended up borrowing this cheerful directive and making it a part of our goodbyes. It began as a joke, but it’s turned into a ritual.
Today, the light that streams into the kitchen through the blinds cuts sharply across the petals of a brand-new orchid on the counter. As long as I back off and get out of my son’s way, our morning routine runs smoothly. I pour hot water from the kettle into the filter over my cup, watching the grounds swim. He makes his own breakfast at the opposite end of the room, lifting a Trader Joe’s oatmeal from the freezer, putting it in a bowl, and standing on a stool to slide the bowl carefully into the microwave. When he’s done, he carries it to the dining room table. I join him, cradling my coffee.
“Oh, yeah!” he exclaims. “I remember now. Men with guns came into our classroom.”
Luckily, when he speaks, I’m seated squarely in my chair and my cup produces only a small spill as it jostles. He hands me a napkin from the napkin holder and grabs one for himself. He’s a thoughtful kid. I wipe up the spill. He picks up a pencil and starts doodling.
“Our teacher calls it lockdown,” he continues, his tongue protruding from one corner of his mouth as he moves the pencil over his napkin. “They had masks on.”
“Was this your bad dream, sweetie?” I ask, trying to keep my voice even.
“Yup.” He puts the pencil down to lift his spoon and take a bite of oatmeal. “I kept running and hiding, but the men kept finding me.”
“Sounds scary,” I say. My hands and legs prickle uncomfortably.
I haven’t yet found the right moment to talk to him about Columbine, or Sandy Hook, or Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, or Santa Fe High School, or Red Lake Senior High School, or West Nickel Mines School, or Marysville-Pillchuck High School, or the shooting a few months ago at Saugus High School in Los Angeles, or the 37, 662 other gun incidents that have already taken place over the course of this year alone, much less since he was born. Is there ever a right moment for this type of conversation? If so, I can’t imagine when it would be.
“Oh, my!” I clap awkwardly, noticing the clock. “Time to go. Shoes on.”
At the bus stop, my son tips his head toward me. He looks calm. I brush his hair back away from his face, overcome, yet again—for maybe the hundred-thousandth time—by the always shocking realization that this human I once held in a single hand against my chest in a delivery room is now an actual, semi-independent person with a mind of his own. He stands in front of me, smelling of oatmeal and toothpaste, his forehead level with my chin.
“Hey,” someone yells behind us. “Catch!”
It’s one of his friends with a football. He turns away, and they run around for a while, tossing the ball until the bus arrives. Then my son circles back, out of breath.
“Don’t forget to wave, Mom,” he whispers so only I can hear, his face flushed. “Wave till you can’t see me anymore. Wave till after I’m gone, okay? Promise?”
“Promise,” I say.
The bus departs, slowly shrinking up the road.
I wave as it rounds the first corner. I wave until I can just barely see my son’s face pressed against the window, his hoodie pulled up over his head.
At the very last moment, before a tree blocks my view, he presses his thumbs and fingers together, making the heart shape we sometimes create for one another. It’s our love-no-matter-what symbol, part of a recklessly sentimental mother–son code. Like a venomous spider in a pool of darkness, something heavy takes shape in my stomach. I feel a surge of panic and resist the impulse to chase after the bus.
The last trace of yellow disappears.
A neighbor—the father of the kid with the football—clears his throat beside me. “Good morning,” he says. I snap out of my reverie and lower my arm.
“Does your son dream about gunmen?” I ask as we begin walking together.
He frowns, air whistling in his nostrils.
“I don’t think so, but he doesn’t talk much about his dreams.”
“I didn’t realize they were practicing lockdowns in school already,” I say.
“There was an email.” He sighs. “That’s just how it is now, I guess.”
“Right, because in a modern, civilized world,” I sneer, “in the 21st century, eight-year-old kids should worry about getting shot while lining up for recess.” It’s out of my mouth before I can remind myself that keeping impotent rage to a minimum is proper post-school-bus-drop-off etiquette with neighbors.
An American flag snaps against the roof of one of the large, majestic houses lining Route 1. I smell burning wood; a trail of smoke rises from a chimney.
“Frankly, I wish the press would stop sanitizing the images,” my neighbor says, bending the fingers back on one of his hands like a boxer prepping for a match. “We don’t want to see what’s happening, but if we don’t feel it, nothing changes. Remember that picture of the drowned two-year-old? It changed the migrant policy in Europe. People need to see what AK-47s do to kids’ bodies. It sounds awful, but getting a sanitized version doesn’t help.”
“Oh God, I can’t even think about that,” I shudder. “The gun lobbyists, the gun manufacturers, the gun distributors, all of them—they should have to see, not us.” Early-morning commuters stream past. We’ve reached the intersection where our paths diverge: his, to the metro, mine, home. I stare at the cars.
“‘It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.’ Upton Sinclair,” he quotes.
We both smile listlessly.
“Well, have a good day,” he proposes.
“You too.” I almost say on purpose, but catch myself.
At home, I lock the door behind me, peel off my shoes, and pad into the dining room. My coffee cup looks abandoned, still nearly full to the brim. I take a sip; it’s cold.
I sit down in my son’s chair, next to his bowl of half-eaten oatmeal. He drew a picture of our family on the napkin, I see now, which doesn’t surprise me. He’s been drawing us a lot these days.
What surprises me is something else: the thing he’s scribbled into the portrait.
I’m standing next to him with bell-shaped hair. His dad’s wearing a tie and glasses. He’s in the middle, the center of our universe. We’re smiling, our triumvirate enclosed in the protective confines of a lopsided heart. It’s the same family portrait he draws in the margins of his notebooks, on the backs of manila envelopes and permission slips, on pieces of construction paper that end up on the wall outside his third-grade classroom. The only difference here is the small, black thing he’s added into one of his hands: a sideways “L.”
It takes me a moment to recognize what it is: a gun.
Then the shapes blur because I’m crying. Of course, it’s just a drawing. As a therapist I know it’s a good thing, probably—a way of taking back control. I can bring it up later, pointing at the “L” and saying, “Hey, what’s this, honey?” or “How did it feel to draw yourself holding that after such a scary dream?” I know there’s no denying the reality of guns—they’re in video games, in the back rooms of arcades, in Boy Scout magazines and holiday editions of The Sharper Image catalogues, in Target and Walmart and Toys-R-Us and the mazelike corridors of wild, raucous, laser-tag birthday parties. They’re even in our own basement on playdates amid cries of “You’re dead!” with nerf bullets ricocheting off walls.
But, for a moment, it feels like I’ve lost him: my one-and-only child-of-the-cosmos. It’s as if he’s melted into a world where men hunt boys through darkened school hallways, down alleys and side streets—where the boys of today come of age in school lockdowns, drawing L shapes into family portraits, replacing love with power and grief with invulnerability, turning themselves into the men of tomorrow whose salaries depend on not understanding.
I fold his crumpled napkin in half and tuck it under his bowl, listening to the hum of the refrigerator. The sun has shifted, as it always does, and the blossoms of the orchid on the counter look softer than they did an hour ago. When I pick him up from school, and we’re out in the parking lot, away from his friends so I don’t embarrass him, I’ll say, “Did you have a good day, sweetheart? Did you play football at recess?” And then I’ll pull him into my arms and hold him there as tightly as I can for as long as he’ll let me.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nurture Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past 16 years, she’s provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.