A picture has been burned into my retinas. It haunts me. I close my eyes and it is there, often unbidden. It comes to me in the middle of the night and at unexpected times throughout the day. I long to push it away, but I need this picture. It’s all I have: a picture of my children, of a single moment from the last time I saw them.
June 21. The solstice: warm and sunny. A little too warm, and a part of me was singing inside because soon I’d soon be escaping the Pennsylvania heat and humidity and heading back to my West Coast roots. On the driveway stood my ten-year-old black Honda CRV, tightly packed with everything I owned and everything I was taking with me. Two bicycles — my symbols of freedom — hung from a rack on the back of the car. I was ready for six weeks on the road and for my eventual landing across a border into another country and another world. A world without my kids.
I glanced at the house. It had taken months to do it but it was finally empty inside of my things, and empty of the dreams and the lives that had once filled it. I had been up since dawn with last-minute cleaning and packing. The keys had been handed over to the landlord. Everything was finished. I was ready to go. Almost.
One thing remained, one very important thing, the thing I had been avoiding. How the hell do you say goodbye to your kids? Especially when you don’t know when you’ll see them again? It would be months — maybe even a year — before I would. I pushed away that painful thought. Moving to another country was going to bring unknown complications, and while so many things weren’t certain, one was: my children had been a part of me since their beginnings deep within my own body.
Their very cells were part of me. I knew the touch of their skin, the sound of their voices, their habits and eccentricities, their deepest dreams and fears. Once, the thought of being apart from them for even an hour, a day, was too much for me to imagine so I held them more tightly and tried to make them part of my flesh once more, to make those now-separate cells one again. Leaving them now felt like leaving a huge part of my own life behind, like ripping out big chunks of my soul and abandoning them there to die.
The children appeared. Their dad lived just across the street, a situation that was once awkward but now convenient, and they walked over together to say goodbye. We stood awkwardly outside in the sun next to my packed car. I held my breath, bit my lip, and hugged each of them, one by one, making it count.
Eric. Did he even know what was happening? We had talked about it the day before, there on the empty steps of the nearly-empty house, but I never know how much he understands. He smiled and nodded “yes,” and I felt his heart telling me that everything will be fine between us — that he’ll one day learn to talk despite his delays and we’ll have long conversations about everything and nothing — but still I don’t know. I hugged him again. He pulled away, startled by the intensity, and smiled at me. His smile was uncertain at first, and then grew broader at some remembered game between us. He couldn’t have known in his Down syndrome world that my goodbye was going to stretch far into his unknown
Serena. She’s always thinner than I imagine her to be every time we hug. Bird bones, light and thin but oh-so-strong. Eight going on sixteen, always impatient for the next thing and the next. She had plans that day that didn’t include standing in the sun and trying not to imagine what life was going to be like without her mother in it. She too pulled away, possibly hoping that by pushing me away she could push away the realness and the finality of the moment.
Nathaniel. He looked at me with the accusing eyes of a near-teen. They pleaded, “Take me with you! You and I are so alike; how can you leave me here?” Part of me didn’t want to see those eyes. I wanted the fact that he was older than the others to mean that he’d understand better what was happening and why I was going. I knew I was expecting more of him than was fair, but that expectation was all I could cling to. After all, someone had to understand. We hugged, neither of us yet used to the recent change in our height dynamic that caused him to now bend down a little, still unsure whether being taller than me had to mean being wiser as well. Suddenly feeling a new weight of responsibility, he clutched Eric’s hand and looked at me again, at the same time questioning and knowing the answer.
Unspoken words hung in the stillness of the warm summer air, but there was nothing more to say. The children turned to go, the three moving as one. Walking together, they rounded the corner, looking back at me one more time. That’s the image I call up every day: Eric gleeful at the promise of his next moment; Nathaniel holding Eric’s hand, looking at me with pleading eyes; Serena resolute, striding forward. Ironically, wildly, I had the thought that the three of them finally looked like a real family. Always before it was too much to see past the squabbles and their age differences for them to look like anything but individuals. Now they were finally bonded in their shared loss.
I watched them go until they were out of sight, and turned toward the car. I checked the bikes again on the back of the car, got in, and moved down the driveway one last time. My children’s new permanent residence stood before me, windows tightly shut as if no one lived there. Needing to punish myself somehow, I forced a last glance at their house, hoping the image of it would overwrite the one that penetrated my brain from just moments before, the image of my children turning the corner into their new lives, without me.