Lily Padula

It was the day before Christmas Eve, December 23. I dropped my 18-month-old boy, Aidan, off at his daycare, and drove to the courthouse. I was to appear before the judge to find out if I’d be sentenced to prison—and if so, for how long.

Three years prior, before Aidan was born—before I knew that real adventure took strength of character, not merely an aptitude for risk and foolhardy decisions—I flew 5,000 hits of Ecstasy from New York City to Springfield, Missouri, where I handed it off to a tall Midwestern boy in a dark brown leather jacket.

Driving to daycare, I saw how my baby’s face looked in the rearview mirror, and it occurred to me to seal the image of that reflection into my memory. I thought about the presents hidden in the attic. The rocking horse he had asked for—wooden with yarn for hair. It was the first year he understood Santa.

John, my lawyer, was feeling good about his play for probation, but in the event of a worst-case scenario, I would self-report—meaning I’d have six months to bring myself to prison. So I dropped my toddler off at daycare and kissed him goodbye at the door like I did every other day before work. And, just like every other day, he ran to the window, tiptoeing on a stool so he could watch as I drove away. And just like every other day, he’d stay at the window until I was out of sight, his tiny fingers making the sign language sign for I love you. His teacher had told me that while he’s waving, he says, “Bye Momma, bye Momma, bye Momma....” Sure enough, the little fingers were waving as I drove away, the brown eyes and thick mass of dark brown hair barely clearing the windowsill.

Bye Momma.

In the courtroom, I handed my purse, my watch, and my jacket to my own mother. She held my wrist with her shaking hand. Her fingers were cold. She was always cold, and often wore scarves and gloves at the slightest chill, in addition to thick wool socks. She pulled me close enough to smell her. Lavender oil, tea tree, and ylang-ylang.

“I love you, Meg,” she said.

I looked back once more at my grandparents, and my mother, before I stepped into the plaintiff-shaped space beside my lawyer, and before a judge, who, after John’s arguments and the testimonials of my family, made his decision.

Twenty-three months—starting now. You’re no different from the rest. Set an example. Learn a lesson. No exceptions.

“Please let her have Christmas. She’s changed. For her son,” my lawyer begged through real tears—his, and mine. Everything went fuzzy, my tongue swelled thick, thicker than my head. My body, everything heavy. Heavy and peeling away from my bones.

God. No.

Aidan is waiting.

He’ll be right back in that window when my car pulls into the driveway, but I won’t be in it, I thought. He’ll be there, saying, “Momma here. Momma here. Momma here.” But I won’t be.

I won’t be there.

The sound of my own mother wailing a primal mother-wail reverberated through the courtroom. This wail was the sound of our whole lives changing shape.

“That judge probably saved your life,” said the taller of the two federal marshals, as he pressed the “B” for basement button in the elevator. I kept my head low, studied the silver bands around my wrists, the short chain between them. Those steel bracelets preceding me into the stark-white holding cell, empty except for a bench, a toilet, and a single roll of toilet paper. I sat on the bench like I was in the post mortem scene of a movie, where the spirit of the dead sits alone, enveloped in a bright white expanse of nothing, right before the screen goes blank.

TTT

That baby boy is now a tall, lanky 13-year-old. He smells like cereal and socks and is a holy arbiter of comedic merit. His face is permanently brushed with the first furry shadows of manhood, and he still hugs me hard enough to crack my ribs when no one’s watching. There are no reindeer or rooftops in our holidays anymore. Instead, we engage in more measured negotiations for new games, or cash money. He wants for nothing and everything. We push and pull each other in a way that would suggest we don’t even remember being apart. Both our banter and our brawl continually remind us that nothing is forever. Not even loss.

I don’t have many regrets in life. Actually, I have none. I don’t regret selling Ecstasy. Not even going to prison. I refuse to discount as a “mistake” a whole chunk of my life that continues to inform everything that has come after—but I am immensely grateful to have other tools now. And, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, I’m deeply grateful to have gotten what amounts to a press pass into a world most people never see.

Now, in order to stay free I am required to recognize my privilege, and continually renew my humility. Because no matter where I find myself, there are still the moments where the darkness of winter closes in and the angst and busy-ness serve to blind me to my rich and full life of food and friends; a bed in a private room covered in high thread-count, organic wool; peace; and the sounds of the son through the walls. All the boy. All the beauty. And I can still witness myself wishing it all away: wanting for some kind of vaguely imagined easier time. Being human is such a trip.

Ultimately, we are all doing time, right? Everyone on the inside and everyone on the outside is just waiting to be free. We are not so separate. We all have the children stories, the mother and father stories that keep that primal wail alive and awake to the work we have to do, so everyone can be free. There is both gift and burden in a blessing.

This year, our holidays are roasted root vegetables and Fallout 4. I will scramble eggs and run in the rain. I will try to remember that freedom is not the absence of suffering, or being able to do whatever I want. I will try to remember that freedom is the willingness to carry it all around with more grace.

And then I’ll forget. And remember again. And again.