I saw a thing once about elephant moms, and how they comfort each other when something has happened to one of the calves of the herd. The grieving mother trumpets out to the others, who continue to trumpet out the message, often for days, sometimes for much longer than the experts would expect. Meanwhile, the elephant moms of the herd gather with their sister, pressing together or touching her lightly with their trunks, refusing to leave her side.
The issue of family separation isn’t a political one to me; it’s primal. My outrage about the separations, about the confinement and kidnapping of immigrant children, is grounded not in any political stance but in my everyday experiences as a mother. And about the example of the elephants.
Separations from my own children were mostly of the voluntary and first-world variety, say, when the children were finally – thank you, Jesus – old enough to go to some kind of school. Two or three mornings a week of preschool brought with it the promise of important mom-life-goals, like being able to eat, or shower, or use the toilet without the constant, interrogatory presence of a sweaty toddler who, during one particularly hot and humid summer, had to be touching some part of my upper body every second of every day. This is the sort of separation that was most welcome, that sounded like a bit of heaven.
But, as anyone who has ever parented a colicky newborn or bitter teenager will tell you, just because something is very much wanted does not mean it is not excruciatingly difficult. And even these normal separations in delightfully age-appropriate circumstances were sometimes very hard. Even though our would-be preschoolers were assured of loving teachers and playmates, big-boy backpacks and character lunch boxes, and their mother’s certain return – a far cry from the handcuffs, arrests, and cages of our modern-day Grimm scary-tale – the children sometimes cried mournfully. And the moms, who’d looked forward to it for so long, sometimes found themselves crying, too.
And that was a lovely little school. It was a couple of hours.
The details of most parental partings are quickly blurred by Mother Nature, beginning with the very first separation, which is the labor that delivered the children in the first place. She leaves us mostly with the sweet, gauzy memories of the mother and child reunions, and her dogged, self-serving hope that we will do it all again. I remember quite clearly the time I returned from a trip away – and this was a vacation, mind you, not a desperate flight to safety under the cover of darkness – that had turned out to be somewhat trying, and during which I had missed my children desperately. Still, it was a vacation. It was only a week. And yet, 24 summers later, the chemicals in my brain that sort out what is important enough to remain as memory and what is discarded and long forgotten have staunchly protected the clear image of little boys at four and two brought to the airport to meet me, their noses freckled and sunburned, their t-shirts hanging on bony shoulders. The primal, palpable need shared by all three of us to be with each other. The way passing, misty-eyed strangers stopped at the sight of us, politely asking how long I had been away from my children. I could weep just thinking of it.
What happened when we were reunited was the same exact thing that happened during and after separations of the more traumatic sort, like the time their father and I searched, wild-eyed and crazy, for our boy in Disney World, or the time our girl was whisked away, papoosed and unconscious, in a medevac helicopter. Which is that I heard a low, mournful cry in my ears before I realized where it was coming from; it was coming from me. It was involuntary and instinctive, and it was more animal than human. I recognized it as the guttural, female sound of labor and of loss.
Something primitive takes over when you are separated from your child, when you know your child is separated from the safety you provide. You feel a profound sense of disruption coming from a place that is deeper and older than you are. In the moment of separation, you are an animal mother, focused on only her young, on the danger. The elephant mother does not worry that she is overreacting as she frantically trumpets to find her calf; the mama bear does not consider manners as she swats her giant paw. The lioness does not stop to wonder if people will think she is insane as she drops her strong body to the ground and pulls her cubs close, as if by doing so she will somehow again fully incorporate them into herself, cushioning and guarding their bodies with her own.
And if you have ever heard a separation story from another mother, you know that even as you listen, even though it is not your child, you feel it. A shudder travels up your spine, and goosebumps appear on your arm; you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Even though you know that it turns out alright, you blink back tears as you listen; you hold your breath. And as you hear or read or watch the story of the child lost at the ocean, strapped in by the paramedics, spirited away by the predator, you find that it becomes increasingly difficult to be silent and still, and you so you say something – anything – even if it is only Oh my God!, even if you are all by yourself. You find that for reasons you do not fully understand, you have the urge to move, and soon, you are biting your fingernails, covering your eyes, tapping your foot.
We know – without knowing how we know – the expression of a mother whose child is lost, the deep and mournful cry of a mother whose child has been snatched from her arms. Like the elephant moms, we recognize the trumpet cry of loss. We feel a force that comes from a place deeper and older than we are tell us not to be silent or still, to respond to the shudder, to be emboldened by the hair on the neck. It tells us that it is time to move, and to stand with our sisters, touching them lightly with our elephant trunks to let them know we are here. And to continue the trumpet call, for as long as it takes.