The flattened boxes are stacked in the garage, next to two fresh spools of thick packing tape. They’re ready to be filled with our older girl’s worldly belongings, her jeans and T-shirts, piles of spandex exercise clothes, her new little Tupperware bowls, a laundry hamper, some precious photos of familiar faces.
There are six days left until five of us board an airplane that will take us two thousand miles away, and a few days after that, only four of us will return. Our sandwich is thinning, and the turmoil I’m feeling is barely describable.
I haven’t been able to complete a column in six months, and it wasn’t for lack of material to write about. My problem was excess. I have found it nearly impossible to compress the hugeness of the past half-year into a thousand words per month, no matter how I’ve tried. It began in March when this daughter took a weeklong journey into Death Valley along with a dozen schoolmates. They each did a solo three-day, three-night sojourn in the desert, and it was then that I felt the first fraying of the maternal threads that bind me to this child. I felt the hundreds of miles between us like a chasm in my heart. Where was she, my girl, under the stars without a shelter? Helplessness filled me and I wept with fear like I hadn’t since she was an infant. I had an inkling, then, that I was in for more, much more of this: of not knowing where or how she was, or with whom, and how she was faring. This understanding shook me down to my bones. I obsessively listened to the “Into the Wild” soundtrack, my heart hammering to the lyrics. Have no fear for when I’m alone I’ll be better off than I was before… I’ve got this life, I’ll be around to grow/ Long lights allow me to feel I’m falling, safely to the ground. When she returned, all browned and glorious and thrilled with what she’d accomplished, I felt proud, overwhelmed, and in awe of her independence. And sad.
Her final months of high school, her final season of rowing with her beloved team, her graduation and her team’s advancing to the National Youth Rowing Championships were the most intense and difficult periods of parenting I’d ever known. There were days when we could not bear to speak to or look at each other; the tension of those ultimate moments, fraught with emotion and meaning, was so great. Having to still make rules, when rules were so quickly becoming obsolete, was maddening. Both of us knew that shortly she’d be making her own rules. I felt like she was shaking me off, like an old dead skin she wouldn’t need anymore. How burdensome to have parents, seemed to be her message.
I spent the early part of summer trying to give her a nice wide berth, not asking too many questions, not demanding much of her time or attention. I stepped back. At one point she asked me, “Mom, are you like giving up? On being a mother?”
It’s hard to know what to do. I’m finding this time of letting go just as bewildering and perplexing as having a newborn infant. I’ve never done this and I just don’t know how.
I dreaded this last month, felt that our connection would just snap irrevocably, and she would drift away into her life like a bear cub on an ice floe. But we’ve been moving toward each other again, and it’s been unexpectedly sweet.
The family just spent a lovely week on the river, floating on kayaks and inflatable whales. There was a rare sense of relaxation, of easiness in being together. Friends came and went, sitting on the water’s edge with us. At the end of the week, my birthday. I braced myself with extremely modest expectations — perhaps a card? Mother’s Day had been a rather tense affair back in May. But I woke up to bare feet clattering on the wooden stairs, a major bustling about. Minutes later, she stood at my bed with a tray heaped with fresh fruit and yogurt, warm homemade coffee cake, a bundle of hydrangeas. My girl, who was on a super no-carb diet in preparation for her upcoming career as a lightweight athlete, had spent the night baking for me, of which she wouldn’t eat a bite. Not only the coffee cake, but a double layered chocolate birthday cake with raspberries too. My eyes filled with tears. For the first time, I felt a seismic shift in our relationship; felt her sacrificing, and big time, on my behalf. I was humbled.
We’re all shifting around. Her younger sister contemplates switching bedrooms, finding a different space in the house. My husband, who has always thought us Too Busy for many outside activities, registers himself and me for a day of college lectures on president James Madison, Melville and Moby Dick. “What day are we going to Wisconsin?” my mother asks. She counts them down on her fingers; they are less than two hands now. I know the question makes her want to cry; the answer makes me feel that way, too, but we have the conversation with good, steady voices. We pick up objects and turn them around in our hands. “Will she need this? Is there room for this?” A stapler, an oversized beach towel, a can opener.
Meanwhile, our old dog totters around. Often he stumbles, crashing, into his food bowl. Kibble scatters across the floor. He’s blind. He’s deaf and incontinent and confused, spending up to an hour staring, unseeing, into the corner between two walls. He cries more these days, the whimpering of a puppy. It feels like it’s nearly Time, time for that terrible decision we’ve dreaded. But how can my mother withstand it, losing both her beloved granddaughter and dog at once? For one more day, we put it off.
It is one hour at a time now. The dog lives to see another morning. We gather more things, one by one, to pack into the cartons.