A little over seventeen years ago, I was told my partner Daniel and I had a very small, very new and very beautiful daughter. She was put in his arms. He brought her to me. We could finally put a face to a name. She was squeaking in confusion and protest but upon hearing her father’s voice and then feeling my finger on her cheek, she fell asleep so quickly and so thoroughly it was as if she'd been hit by a tranquilizer dart. Her father and I smiled goofily at one another.
And then she was whisked away.
“Where’s she going?” I said, craning my neck as much as I could, but still feeling nothing below my sternum. Daniel said something about “…newborn stuff” and followed the nurse to comfort our baby while various small indignities happened. They went one way out of the operating room, I went another.
She’s been been leaving ever since.
That’s what our children do. They leave. A little bit every day, some days more than others. Every new stage of their lives, the cord between parent and child is supposed to get longer, and thinner, and more irrelevant. One day, frayed from use and fairly irritating to at least one of the participants, the cord snaps. It’s time for them to fly. Ships are safest in port, but that isn’t what they’re built for. Chose your hoary metaphor. At graduations, at dances, at any rite of passage where adults gather that isn’t a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, someone murmurs about how they’re growing up so fast.
[That doesn’t happen at Chuck E. Cheese because no child is acting in a way that indicates they’ll ever move out and also it’s hard to murmur over the din.]
Most parents know they have their children until the end of high school, eighteen years or thereabouts. Then they are adults and whether that means college, or work, or military service, or something else, they are coming and going in a very different way than ever before. You have eighteen years to get used to this idea.
Unless, like Daniel and me you have a child who decides she wants to spend her senior year of high school in France, living with a local family, going to high school in a foreign country. Unlike college, she will not come home for holidays. Unlike work, she will not swing by to have dinner some night because dinner with the folks is free and she’s waiting on her paycheck. On the other hand, unlike the military, the greatest existential threat she might experience is scooters.
[A side note: Motorcycles become more stable the faster they’re driven for reasons Daniel has explained to me several times and maybe some day I will understand. Scooters are never safe. I knew two people killed in a scooter accident. Sure, teenage girls craving Instagram Moments may look adorable posing on one. But save your parents tears and heartache. Pose but do not ride.]
My friends whose children weren’t leaving yet stared at me and would ask, “What’s it like, her leaving?”
I would answer honestly, “I have no idea. She’s still here.”
Not only was she still here but since we learned she had been accepted into the program in April, my life had been an increasingly long to-do list, all of which was mandatory, most of which was Byzantine, a terrifying amount of which had to be approved by the French government. You know the French government, right? The people who gave us the word bureaucrat? So when someone would pat my hand sympathetically about how heartsick I must be thinking about her leaving, a small mutinous voice in my head would say, “At least when she’s gone I’ll be done getting things notarized.”
When I wasn’t hearing from the parents with children younger than mine, I was hearing from my friends who had just sent their children out into the world. Here are some things I heard:
“I cried for a month. And then I got better and then she came back for Thanksgiving and when she left I cried for two weeks.”
“It gets better…eventually.”
“It’s like a death.”
A few people softly whispered that it was actually kind of fun (shout out to the friend who explained that the kitchen wasn’t just for food any more, if you get my meaning), but that wasn’t the overarching narrative. “Tissues, everywhere, for longer than you can imagine” was the overarching narrative. And they got their kids back for holidays. At best, we’d visit her once in early spring. Why wasn’t I hysterical? I mean, usually, I’m not what anyone would call “emotionally operatic,” but isn’t this exactly the sort of place where I should be? Shouldn’t I have been smelling her hair constantly? Sure, she wouldn’t let me, but shouldn’t I have been trying? Is this something that’s coming and I just haven’t figured it out yet?
But let’s imagine the absolute lack of a daughter nearby stops making me cry or I run out of tears, what do I do then? Sure, I can write, but one of the pleasures of writing was how I could do that while parenting. I could write jokes while sitting waiting for her someplace. I could finish an article while sitting near her as she avoided working on her SAT prep. I could do a phone interview while sitting poolside during her practice. Perhaps I need to do something besides write. Perhaps I also could try standing up.