She always thought of the most important things in threes. Even when she was a small child, it was a number that made sense to her. Mother, father, child. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. The people who loved her first came to her in a set of three: her parents, the parents of her mother, and the parents of her father. There were plenty of other numbers to be recognized in the world. She was quite fond of fours and sevens, but it was the threes that held her heart. When her brother was born and much later as they grew to adulthood, she often wondered if he would have been different if they had belonged to a set of three children. He’d always seemed ill-suited to be the youngest; it was a role that brought out the worst of his middle child’s personality. Watching him struggle with this missing third had once brought her to the edge of asking her mother if there had been another child, if there should have been another. She wasn’t quite sure why the words had stuck in her throat when she tried, but she realized that day her set of three was completed in a way she hadn’t seen before. Sister, brother, silence.
The period during which she coupled and raised her children she thought of as the time of the big threes. It was the stage of her life in which she focused on all of the weighty issues that came with feeling responsible for others. Spirit, mind, body. Creator, destroyer, sustainer. Maiden, mother, crone. It wasn’t an examination that only just began with the birth of her sons. She had become aware of them as she moved toward adulthood, when she had taken lovers, lost friends. It was the time when everything began to feel more important than before. There were many times when the examination of who she was and why she was here was replaced with much more mundane groupings of three. She was a mother, after all, and there were those stretches when she felt so depleted by the needs of others that all she could muster were the basics. Milk, bread, hot dogs. School clothes, summer vacation, birthdays. There was that particularly tough year when she’d been so busy that she actually forgot it was one of the boy’s birthdays. She’d stayed up for hours after they’d gone to bed, finishing up the third day of house painting she’d been doing after work. It was about midnight when she realized it, sitting on the ladder, crying with paint all over her hands. She woke him up the next morning and acted as if that day was his birthday. Luckily for her, he was still too young to realize it was all a do-over of her failure as a mother. It was the only day she’d ever been able to look back on with the satisfaction of feeling that she’d managed to truly right one of her wrongs. Past, present, future.
As the flurry of childrearing subsided to a gentle tide in which she caught glimpses of the boys she once knew only occasionally, her sense of threes narrowed to a consideration of simply herself. Me, myself, and I. She realized how little she had thought of herself when she was younger, how she was glad to have learned better. In her private moments, she began to see herself as separate from her small family, separate from all those she loved and those who loved her. She imagined herself dying alone, frightened at the prospect of simply ceasing to be, wondering if she would be reborn again into some sort of infinite déjà vu loop where she would live the same life in slightly different ways. Birth, life, death. She would think of it for as long as she could stand it, usually only a minute or two, before she would seek out the warm familiar arms of the man who loved her. She loved him, she loved her kids, and she’d somehow managed to love herself through most of it. Sometimes when they sat together on the porch nights, squinting to find the constellations they still knew, she would smile to herself more certain than ever that three was still the number of completion.
Cate Compton was born in Alpine, Texas. She is a bilingual writer and self-taught artist whose many other projects have involved running a literary website, co-founding a roller derby league, and working for accurate translations of court proceedings in criminal cases. She lives in the Hill Country with her amazing family and too many animals.