We had what amounts to a parenting milestone two-fer last fall. Our youngest two children, step-sisters, both graduated in June and moved away to begin their freshman year of college at their respective schools. While our nest-emptying began gradually in 2016, it emptied abruptly in September. I’ve chronicled the great migration over the past three years, as well as all the years and moments leading up to it in this blog, but by far the most difficult posts to complete have been these last two “goodbyes.” It really does signify the end of an era for parents, to stop parenting on a daily basis cold turkey. It’s just gets a little more…real when that last one leaves home.
In September, Landry was the last to go. This is her story. Just kidding. It’s mine. All mine. Just like my clean kitchen and twenty-dollar bills in my wallet now are: all mine.
Four days before moving my daughter into her dormitory, she and I flew 2,000 miles away, to Chicago. We spent every hour together for the better part of those four days, save only for sleeping. For that, we separated; she in the one bedroom with the queen bed of our AirBnB apartment, and I in one of the two “Lucy and Ricky” single beds in the living room.
The first night I snuggled into my miniature bed, thinking about her in the next room, I felt a stinging slap upside the head, and I heard a voice say: “She isn’t flying back home with me. I’m getting on that plane without her. I am leaving my daughter in Chicago.”
My eyes sprang open, then started blinking rapidly, staring into the pitch-blackness of the basement apartment, as I tried to get my bearings, emotionally and physically.
How could this be?
Here’s how: In the back of every person’s mind is a wee door, leading to a hidden receptacle, where the small messages that scream at us through the din of everyday life, but that we don’t want to hear, are swept away to with an industrial-sized push broom. Sweep, sweep, sweep, we redirect the messages to this forgotten anteroom, and we strain continuously to keep that door wedged shut; to keep all the unwanted information out of our daily existence. That first night in our apartment, that tiny door I hadn’t even known existed until then, started to crack open.
After a few moments of self-reflection, even in the dark, I saw clearly how it could be: She’d been telling me for years she wanted to go far away. And for years I smiled, and I nodded, and I swept. Until that night, as I pictured myself boarding the plane without her.
Fast-forward four days. After multiple runs to big box stores to outfit the little box she’d be living in, I returned to our mother-daughter love shack, alone. I stepped into the now-empty bedroom with the stupid queen bed. The suitcases, which had thrown up their contents four days prior, were gone. The Frankenstein selection of clothes my daughter had to bring represented the weather patterns she would be experiencing: shorts for now (it was a humid 80 degrees the week we moved her into her dorm), but also sweaters and jackets, as the temp would drop into the 20s by the end of the first quarter and sub-zero temps by January.
But I didn’t step into my empty, temporary nest without reinforcements. Accompanying me were my companions, wine and honey-mustard pretzels, otherwise known as dinner, thanks to a conveniently located Walgreens.
When I crawled into bed that night, snacks and booze on my bedside table, I mentally trudged to that heavy door that I had firmly kept shut for the last several months, save for the quick peek I took that first night in our temporary home, and I unbarred it. A virtual tidal wave of messages, in the form of memories of the last 18 years, poured through, bobbing around me like little ducks on a creek, reminding me of my little duckie girl, which I called her during her duck phase that lasted about a year when she was three.
The fact that I would be boarding that plane for the trip back to California without my daughter was one of those banished messages. A few others scurried out of their dank cell as I sank into my bed and my thoughts:
“I am leaving my daughter a stone’s throw from the city with the highest murder rate in the U.S. (Or is that Detroit?”)
“I should have watched more princess movies with her.”
“I should have explained boys better.”
“I should have explained everything better.”
Now, she was living by herself (and a few thousand other students) in a suburb of Chicago, and she was right where she wanted to be. She was right where she warned me she might be some day, starting in junior high school. Back then, I kept telling her, “Your job is to shoot high; we’ll figure it out.” And that’s exactly what we have all done.
She might be far from me, and her childhood home, but she’s a big step closer to who she is supposed to become, and she’s where that becoming is supposed to begin.
People often ask me, “How do you handle the distance?” I handle it by reminding myself that the distance is only “long” if I measure from point “Me” to point “Her.” But if I measure from point “Her” to point “Where she belongs,” the distance is nothing.
Then I bar the door.