Hello? Dr. Laura?
By Anna Tuttle Villegas
Hello? Dr. Laura?
No, not Lorrie. Never that. You, too? Oh, I'm sure.
Thank you. Thank you for taking my call, Dr. Laura. I've just
recently started listening.
I didn't know-what's that?
No, my radio is not turned on. Not now, I wouldn't when I was
My dilemma? Oh, Dr. Laura, I didn't know where else to turn. I don't
know anybody else to
ask. My boy, Dr. Laura, my beautiful boy, why he-
My question for you?
Just one question. No, no. I understand you don't have a lot of
time. I just wanted to
tell you about my son. Toby is--was--his name, Dr. Laura.
My question. I can't ask you my question without remembering Toby
first. I can't make a
question in a single sentence that doesn't tell Toby's story to you. I need
to say it the right
way, with the right words. I thought you'd understand. I've heard you say
to callers that they
aren't answering the question you asked, or that they're changing their
stories on you. So I
guessed you have some respect for, well, allegiance to representing the truth
of things, the way
things are in families, how, Dr. Laura, how there are a hundred truths
possible in one small thing
that happens--your boy picks up a car-crushed wren when he's four and he sees
you can't make
it better for him, or the way you let him eat oranges all day if he wants
because you think, well,
whose body is it that knows how much Vitamin C it needs? Which is what makes
it so hard to find one
single question to ask. Which parts of the story to leave out in order to
make the one question. I
My Toby. Yes? My only child. A single boy, like yours. Yes, I was
married to his-
Only the one marriage, only the one boy. It didn't last long. Your
three A's? Just one out
of three, count myself lucky. A for addiction. A for alcoholism. Very
early on. Toby was just
two, and then my marriage was over. Then we were just two and were until--
Twenty-four. When he died. He's dead, Dr. Laura. Would you let me
tell my story first?
Thank you. Thank you for that.
At the beginning? At the beginning.
I loved my boy before he was born. No, not planned . . . but you know
what, Dr. Laura? I
knew the morning he was conceived. I knew it, and--you'd understand this, I
think--I knew him. I
knew my baby was a boy. I knew he'd come straight out of my womb where he'd
been such a good boy,
an easy pregnancy, wearing two inches of straight black hair already slicked
back from his forehead
the way it would be, the way he'd comb it when, the way they did it for
was, you know, grown.
Old Dr. Cross--I stayed with his practice from faithfulness, even
though he hadn't set up a
birthing room with ducky wallpaper at the hospital the way some of the other
ob-gyns here in town
did--Dr. Cross put Toby on my breast in the plain delivery room where I lay
on the white-sheeted
table with my feet up in stirrups, and I recognized my boy. I knew him.
(You don't think that did
it, do you? That I didn't birth my son to surround-sound Vivaldi on Laura
Ashley sheets? I never
thought of it before, but could that be why, the question I'm supposed to
ask? Can you harm a
child's growing by saying no thanks, I don't need to have the ambient
add-ons; I just want to have
my baby, no frills?)
My son was there, born and perfect and not part of me but yet even more
a part of me, even
without the umbilical. I know you understand this point. I've heard you say
to your listeners, you
know, the signature line about being your kid's mom. I've heard it one
hundred times, and every
repeat I think: that's what I am. I am my kid's mom. Except he's dead now.
I am still his mom; I
will never stop being his mom. Could you remind me of that, when I get to my
question, please? That when your child dies, it doesn't make you any less
his mother? Don't let me
forget. I think that may be part of my dilemma, Dr. Laura. I am still my
kid's mom. Just as much
as you are yours. Just as much as anybody ever was a mother.
I told my Toby all his life that those first months, that first year,
were the happiest days
in my life. Everything I needed was in my arms: my son against my breast.
Was I wrong to look back
with such fondness on those days? When he couldn't even talk--do you think
he heard me say that I
loved him more then, before--
Oh, yes, I nursed. Fifteen months. Until he weaned himself. It broke
my heart, and not for
La Leche's sake. For mine.
Was I wrong to tell my boy about that small, perfect world we made? I'd
know he was about to
waken before his eyes opened. My milk would come down and wet my nightgown,
and I'd lean over to
the bassinet and see Toby's eyes open, looking right at me. Was I wrong to
these stories about us, how all right everything was in those early days?
How he'd flex his little
man's fist and rub my face with it when he nursed? How he'd fall asleep at
my breast and I couldn't
budge for an hour, awed by the curve of his cheek, the way his dark hair
tapered to fuzz along his
hairline? The sweetness of his breath, his breath. . . .
I'm sorry, Dr. Laura. I'm all right. Still here. Just for a moment,
for a moment I thought
maybe that if I'd nursed him longer, or not so long, maybe?
Oh, yes. I see.
Early walker. Eleven months. Early talker. Before he was two. I
have it somewhere here, on
the baby calendar; the first word he spoke was dog. I recorded every day of
his first year. The
calendar ran out. I should have bought another and labeled it "baby's second
year." And third and
fourth. Maybe if I had, maybe if I hadn't made it seem like that first year
was any better or more
memorable than the ones which came later, maybe he wouldn't have--maybe I
have had to call you now with my dilemma, as you like to say.
I used to wear him against my chest in a Gerry cuddler. Do you
remember those? Blue corduroy
with thick straps and kind of a headboard to keep the baby's head from
flopping? When I was
vacuuming or mowing, or doing up the dishes at night, grateful my husband
hadn't been home for
dinner, I'd wear my Toby against my chest. You must have thought I was a
Hoover, I'd tell him
later, because of all that time you spent cleaning and sweeping and picking
up with me.
Ma, Toby would say back, in a tone so I know now it wasn't that, wasn't
the overttime business
I'd had to do after my other work, when I'd pick him up from my sister's and
head straight home.
About that, I don't have a question for you.
I'd call him my little patapoose--our word--yes, we made words up. No,
I'd use adult
language, of course, but in between we'd make these words in just our
language. A mother does that
with her child, doesn't she, make up a dialect to describe the world that
what the two of them need. Love language that's more true than any other
because it's invented by
you in the bliss of that--
Yes? I had to work, I did. No income from him from Toby's second
birthday. I could work, I
mean, I wasn't helpless. I had skills, so I got a good job. But do you see
that you either get a
job or end up on AFDC? It's not a moral choice that I can see; it's a mother
doing what she's got
to do. The decision I made wasn't even a decision in the sense you mean.
You put your head down
and think: I need to feed and clothe and house my child. He needs medical
going to need a bicycle, a bookshelf, little league uniforms, a calculus
tutor. When he needs these
and you can find a way to supply them, it doesn't even occur to you to choose
to say no, we can't
afford that, honey. You work and then you spend every spare moment with your
Do you really think that's part of it? Oh, Dr. Laura, don't tell me
that, please. Every
minute I wasn't working I was with my child. I was the morning carpool
driver and the 4-H leader
and the pizza mom for the yearbook. Did he get the message that I didn't
love him enough when I
went to work every morning after I'd made his lunch? I don't think so. He
told me once near the
end--not that I knew it was going to be the end, but now I do see it so,
something burning down in
or burning up (isn't that odd: down and up meaning the same here, another
case of those truths that
multiply with reflection)--that the stay-at-home moms weren't all they are
cracked up to be. One of
them, the spandex lady, spent all her time at the fitness center. It was her
house where they had
the Old Milwaukee parties after school his junior year. Another one had five
kids, so I ask you:
did she give each one of hers what I gave Toby? How could she, divided up
into fifths that way?
His girlfriend, that quiet girl who gave me the journal after, she used
to sit in our living
room and tip her head back and say, Lorraine, I love your house. I love the
stillness of your
It's a two-person house, honey, I told her one time, something in her
voice having raised my
sympathy. Fewer people, less racket.
No, it's something different than just quiet. It's serene.
She said it, Dr. Laura, like she'd found the word for Toby and me. When
I think of that, my
question for you gets all muddled. How, in our house where his tabby slept
in a laundry basket
above the washer and Corelli was the homework soundtrack and we grew our own
in redwood boxes on the deck, how could Toby have found what seemed to grow
inside him like an extra
rib, pressing his lungs flat instead of protecting them?
Toby had all of me when I wasn't working, at the least, so when you say
I should have found a
way, well, Dr. Laura, I just don't see how.
I used to lift up my son every day. Of course you do when they're
babies and then toddlers,
fitting them into the crook of your hipbone so they fit you as certain as a
puzzle piece. But even
later, into middle school.
Tobe, I'd say. Let me pick you up.
Because if I pick you up every day, there will never be a day when I
can't pick you up again.
You won't get too heavy for me overnight, will you? Come here.
I honestly believed that, Dr. Laura, and I am a fairly well-read woman.
I thought that my
muscles wouldn't realize the grams he'd gain as he grew (taller than I! To
six foot two!). That
something happening so gradually wouldn't catch me by surprise if, every
morning, after Cheerios and
cinnamon toast, I'd lift my boy up. Maybe it was wrong? Like telling him not
You don't think so?
You know when I couldn't lift him any longer? When he stopped letting
me. I swear if he'd
let me, I could have picked up my grown son like a ballerina. But he
stopped, some time in high
school, the same time he stopped eating breakfast, and then I couldn't when I
try. I let him loose, Dr. Laura, and I will always blame myself for that.
That I didn't carry my
boy better, daily, so we would have grown together, my muscles matching his
Am I? If I am, how can you fault me for feeling so?
Did I give him everything he wanted?
I'm not sure I understand the question.
We didn't have a television. Not until his junior year, at least. Is
this what you mean?
When they're little and they see the commercials and ask for the silly
trinket toys corresponding to
the even sillier cartoons? He didn't see those, so he didn't ask. What did
I give him, what did I
give him. . . .
We had an art cupboard, a wooden cupboard, child's height, that we
filled with construction
paper and glue sticks, crayons and cardboard, a Mason jar filled with
buttons, about six pairs of
those useless little rubber-handled children's scissors which always fray
the paper. I can touch the cupboard now; it's still filled with Toby's art
stuff. Magic markers in
all different shades, Popsicle sticks, leftover theme lunchboxes filled with
rocks and once--where
did it go?--a wooden Maduro cigar box for Toby's collection of miniature
pinecones and acorns and
the oddest little metal pieces he'd collect in the pockets of his pants.
Glass shards worn to
smoothness by the ocean, a whole jelly jar full of his jewels we'd found on
the coast north of Santa
We had a clay board. Yes? That's what we called it: I think it was
the Formica cut-out from
a kitchen sink in one of his uncle's remodels. Toby didn't have to pull his
little clay people
apart to make new ones because they all lived on the clay board. It stayed
on the coffee table in
the living room for six months once, the shoebox of new clay sticks beside
it. Sometimes we'd both
sit down without talking, cross-legged in front of the board, and make new
If you press their little feet on Formica, they will stand up all by
themselves. A whole
neighborhood lived there, the strangest forms. My horse with the loopy Roman
nose, a yellow snake
with pearl eyes and a long green tongue, floppy jalopies. That was quality
wasn't it, Dr. Laura? When you sit with your boy and catch his attentive
eye, your fingers working
the clay into softness?
Mama, make me a giraffe.
Mama, will you make the legs?
Mama, I'm thirsty.
When together you've fit the green Gumby-figure into the seat of his
purple car, he climbs
into your lap and watches your fingers, your long fingers rolling the brown
clay back and forth,
back and forth until it will form into anything he asks for. Then you pick
up your boy, your son
whose weight is so welcome in your arms, and you take him in to your bedroom
for a nap, where you
recite to him James Whitcomb Riley poems about little boys and their
outturned pockets as
you stroke his dark hair and watch his shut-eyed peace relax the calf muscles
of his legs, his long
legs outgrowing their baby fat. You fall asleep, too, don't you, with his
head curled into the
crook of your elbow, and it's like you are a single body once more, except
that his breaths come
shorter than yours, and you dream different dreams.
Did I give him every thing he wanted? Certainly not, not in the sense
I said no to the Gameboy. No videos, ever. Books, Tobe, I'd tell him.
Let's go get books.
Get your library pack.
I said no to the second dog. Roller is getting old, and he needs us to
love just him. No
puppy, not now.
I said no to the four-wheeler. Flat out no. Maybe I said no way, I
don't remember exactly.
I said yes to the terrarium with Jackson's chameleons, yes to the
Walkman, yes to the darkroom
set up in the bathroom, eventually yes to the junker Chevy Impala he bought
from his uncle, to the
engine which he rebuilt in the school's auto shop, just enough to get it
Did I say yes and no to the wrong requests, Dr. Laura? Did I not follow
some higher psychic
health insurance standard in granting my boy such? Should I have said yes to
the puppy and no to
the Chevy? Should I have bought him a Jeep? I can't tell; can you help me
here? Did I make things
come too easy or too hard? Was I overbearingly eccentric in the morality of
Would the puppy have made a difference? Waiting for an old dog to die, is
that what he heard me to
say to him? When he asked me to make the legs for the
clay hippopotamus, was I supposed to say hey, kiddo, do it yourself: you can?
Oh, household rules? You didn't mean material things. I see.
You know what Toby told me, not long before he--he told me it would
have been futile for me to
have forbidden him his freedom to break the rules. We were driving home
from his uncle's, one
holiday or another, and I was thinking out loud, saying that I ought to have
kept more vigilant
watch over him during high school. In high school you don't know what
they're doing because they
don't tell you or--worse--they tell those white lies you allow yourself to
believe because they seem
to be, in the larger landscape of your good, whole lives, such small
trespasses, such minor
Should I have interrogated my boy during those years?
When I knew damn well the red-eyed look he wore home every time he'd
spent time with Dirkie
Shibina was from smoking dope in Dirkie's garage? He stopped, Dr. Laura,
after eight weeks. He
stopped it all by himself. Was I supposed to stop it for him?
When I realized he was sleeping with that quiet girlfriend--I can't
for the life of me
remember her name, the girl who gave me the journal--should I have waved the
condoms in front of his
face and said, you're under lock and key now, my fine fellow? Well, I
didn't, Dr. Laura. That was
his business, my son becoming a man, and not my place to interfere.
What should I have said: you can't go out with her? I liked that girl,
her quietness and
devotion to Toby, their puppy-love fondness for each other that softened the
corners of any room
they were in. He was good for her, Dr. Laura. He was good for everyone
When I found out he'd cut school for two days, in spring of his senior
year, to go down to the
city with the guys from his baseball team, I did yell and accuse and
threaten, Dr. Laura. (For
tattoos. They all came back with tattoos.) He'd made up a cover story, and I
screeched at him for
his lie about the guys watching movies at the McCarty's and then sleeping
over. Not the cutting,
not the tattooing--the lying. So bold, so, somehow, disrespectful to me.
Because I wouldn't lie to
him. I yelled at my Toby for that, Dr. Laura. Now I am ashamed, it was so,
so small. I could have
You don't agree.
I said to him, spacing my words to the thunk-thunk-thunk of the tires
slapping on the uneven
patchy asphalt of the Oakland freeway, I said, Toby, I should have paid more
attention. Called on you more. Been more watchful.
Ma, he said, calm, parental. Ma, if you'd told me I couldn't do
something, you know I just
would have done it without telling you. Everybody did.
Does everybody's child do what Toby did, Dr. Laura?
Do you know that in eighty percent of families, eighty percent of
families in which a child is
lost, the family doesn't make it? The families fall apart, Dr. Laura. The
husbands take up fly
fishing so they can be someplace where silence is required; the wives stop
highlighting their hair
and start watching General Hospital, where the handsome doctors cure
everybody. I am just a
one-woman family, but I am my kid's mom. I feel I am falling apart, Dr.
Laura. My feet won't stick
to the ground, my arms are too long yet too light, my eyes don't close when I
try to sleep.
I understand the rule: no feelings.
Except, Dr. Laura, when there's nothing to me but these feelings, how
can I do the right thing
any more? When it's possible that I was doing the wrong thing for years and
years, and that's why
No, I wasn't lackadaisical. I was . . . flexible is a better word for
what I was. Trying to
emphasize the important things.
I worried for him, Dr. Laura.
Not about, for. Instead of. In place of.
Yes, I hear that you listen to particular words. You should. In your
line of work. Yes.
I worried for him so he wouldn't have to. I wanted my boy to know it
was all right with me
that he explored the world; I didn't want him to be afraid the way I had been
as a child. So I had
the wariness. He must have seen how I built a safety zone surrounding him,
my own guard for his safety I warded off the dangers I could. When I had the
means to protect him
with what I knew, or thought I knew.
Oh, you believe I might have feared excessively? Neurotically?
Tobe, honey, you don't want to take four Tylenol, no matter how badly
your head hurts. Take
two aspirin in another hour.
Brain damage would be better, Toby would mumble, lifting the cold
washcloth from his flushed
Safe home, I'd tell him, as he swung open the car door to go back to
Ma, Toby would answer. I always do. You know I do.
Use the buddy system, I'd remind him when he headed up to the mountains
with backpacks stuffed
with freeze-dried food to hike and swim with his roommate. Stay close to
He will, Lorraine, Aaron would say, winking at me. I'll stay close to
Was this unnatural, unhealthy? To use cautionary words like Saint
Christopher medals? You're
thinking that I made him preoccupied with the potential for--
Children need boundaries. Yes, I agree with that. And language can
build a white picket
fence. Or a hogwire coop.
We talked easily. I'd say always. We kept the lines open. There were
six months in high
school when he turned stiff-faced and sullen, when I backed off from entering
his room to pick up
dirty clothes. If he couldn't get them to the hamper, I said--yes, I was
angry--I couldn't get them
in the washer. He didn't talk much then. To anybody. But everybody told
me, Dr. Laura, everybody
I knew who'd ever had a teenager, they all said it would pass, and it did.
When Roller died.
Lying on the rug in front of the kitchen sink, Roller died one morning.
Old age. Retrievers don't live as long as little dogs.
Yes, we knew he was fading. We'd talked about it-
Toby. Toby found him. He came home from high school and found Roller.
When I got home from
work, he'd almost finished the hole in the violet bed, the cool green where
Roller used to sleep in
the summer heat.
Only it was February, not a good time to be burying a dog. To lift
your old dog's body,
swaddled now in the gray comforter you slept under last night, and set it
into the wet winter loam.
Oh, Tobe. I touched my son's shoulder after we'd spaded over the mound.
The violets we didn't
try to replant. They made a snarled mat of white roots and torn leaves over
Is it that he didn't cry over this kind of thing, Dr. Laura? Should I
have encouraged him to
cry, big son that he was, when he turned to me and let the shovel fall and
wrapped his muddy hands
around me? Can tears turn to strychnine in your child's veins because you
say okay, let them out?
The truth? The truth is I knew as certainly as I knew Roller was dead
that if I'd said a word
to my son at that moment, he would have let go of me. And I didn't want him
to let go, Dr. Laura.
I wanted to hold him forever.
Mixed messages? You think that was it? That my love and expectation
and trust and yes, anger
too, weakened him? That the alloy of my feelings, the making of my own
motherhood, did in my son,
my beloved, beautiful boy?
Before? In the months before?
He was a grown man, Dr. Laura. Living on his own in the city. I knew
better than to call him
daily; that wouldn't have been right, would it? For a mother to call her
twenty-four year old son
every night to check on him? A son who had an apartment and a car, a job
he'd studied for, a lovely
girlfriend? He'd become a man, Dr. Laura, and I was so proud of him.
I didn't cling, if that's what you're suggesting. I have my own life,
my work and my home, my
books. I sometimes passed a whole day without thinking, consciously anyway,
about Toby. And when I
did, I'd just wonder to myself: were he and Kayla going to live together some
time soon, the way
they'd mentioned to me? And if they did share house, would they want the
pine cutting board Toby
had made for me when he was in wood shop? Was parking still impossible in the
street outside his apartment? Would he agree to the technical training in
Denver, even though it
would mean being shortlisted for a move there?
I didn't keep a scorecard of his doings. And, then, I couldn't see
warning in the signs I
cannot consider now without shuddering.
Is that my fault? That I didn't read the signs?
He called me, two months before, and asked me if I remembered when we
flooded the kitchen. He
was about seven when it happened; we hadn't retold this story in a long, long
while. Something had
gone wrong with the water meter; I don't understand even now exactly what. We
were testing why we didn't have any water. So we opened all the taps,
bathroom and kitchen, to see
if we had water flow anywhere. No water, just the air gasping through the
pipes. It was dinner
time, Dr. Laura; I thought well, we'll just go out and have hamburgers
somewhere close, and hope we
have water when we come back.
Toby was chattering about where the water might have gone, and I was
absent-mindedly trying to
recall the name of the plumber I'd used to clear the sewer lines while
explaining to my son the
little I knew about city water supplies and household plumbing systems. We
hamburgers and fries and stopped by the market for milk and green Jello--Toby
wanted to make those
Jello cubes in an ice cube tray, the ones kids can pick up with their fingers
because you use only
half the water. I think he'd had them at school.
A couple of hours after we'd left the house, we were home again. The
water had come back, but
I'd left the taps on and the stoppers in the kitchen sink! The whole kitchen
was flooded. I
remember skidding across the inch-deep water on the linoleum and calling to
Toby not to
touch anything--electrical shock, I was thinking. I shut off the water and
turned to see my son's
delighted face, so unusual for him was the sight of our flooded kitchen and
his mother in a state of
absurd anxiety. We burst out laughing, Dr. Laura, huge belly laughs that had
us rolling on the
dining room carpet, which was soaked, too. We were hysterical with laughter.
Later, after we'd sopped up the water with every towel and blanket in
the house and set Toby's
Jello into the freezer, my son hugged me, his arms around my waist, his head
pressed against my
You're the best person in a flood.
Toby? You're the best person in a disaster. I don't want to be in a
disaster with anybody
You are, Ma.
We both are, Tobe, I told him.
I love you, honey.
Was I supposed to see a signal in this, Dr. Laura? That he'd ask me to
retell such a story?
Oh, no, I understand you don't use a crystal ball.
I was the one who should have. I was my child's mother. I should have-
Suicide as an act of revenge?
Well, I never--
For what, Dr. Laura?
No. I called because you like to tell people to do the right thing. I
thought I hadn't. I
was thinking that you, maybe, being unbiased, not knowing either me or Toby,
could help me to--that
maybe you would know what the right thing would have been, or what was the
single wrong thing that I
could put into a question for you--
Of course it's too late! I know that!
Live with my choices?
Dr. Laura, no mother chooses to identify her only child's body that has
lain in his
apartment's bathtub for two days. No mother chooses to pick up the ringing
telephone that's going
to tell her to get in the car and come identify the body of what is believed
to be her son, who has bled to death in his apartment bathtub. No mother chooses to see her boy--yes, it is her boy, no doubt, even though he's lying there like some clay figure that's lost all its gumption, with nobody to press its feet back on the board--it is her boy and isn't her boy, then, when she identifies the body.
At that moment, her boy isn't who he has always been. Because nothing,
nothing, nothing can explain him now, even to the person who has always been his mother.
That's why I called, Dr. Laura.
But your screener let me through.
My one question for you?
You don't need to hear any more. No, no, I understand: enough details;
your answer won't change if I speak till I'm blue in the face, till I'm--
A T-Shirt? One of yours?
Dr. Laura? Dr. Laura?
No, thanks. Thank you, but no. No T-Shirt.
Bio: Anna Tuttle Villegas' most recent published work includes a third novel, Baby's Breath (Synergistic Press, 2000). Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in many publications, including The Fiddlehead, The Southwest Review, Iowa Woman, Wordperfect Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Christian Science Monitor. A veteran college English teacher, she lives in California's Central Valley.