The bus lurched to a stop, its distinctive orange-yellow easily visible in my rented rear-view mirror. A knot of kids emerged and I struggled to locate my daughter in the gaggle of same-sized girls wearing colorful winter parkas. It had been so long since I had seen her — would I know her? I saw a girl of about the right size and hair color break free from the group. Was that Serena? I couldn’t be sure. Then I saw her, so unmistakably Serena that I almost laughed at having doubted my ability to know my own child. She saw me too and smiled shyly, now walking faster toward me. As she got closer I could see her eyes, shining relief and disbelief at once as if she had been holding herself completely rigid for those seven months and only just now could relax. I held her and cried into the top of her head, smelling her hair.
In a blur of work and travel, I hadn’t yet thought much about what our visit would be like. It had been seven months since we had last seen one another, seven months of weekly-or-so phone calls that awkwardly bridged the distance between us. I knew we had all changed in the intervening time, and it was important to me that during this visit I see each of my three kids as who they had become. Serena shyly got into the backseat and we drove together to pick up her brothers, Nathaniel and Eric, at their new house before going together to the vacation rental cottage we’d call home for the next eight days.
The first night seemed perfect, though tentative. They all loved eating the dinner I made and they loved making the cookies for Serena to take the next day to school in celebration of her ninth birthday. At bedtime we all gathered in the room Serena and Eric would be sharing and I read aloud a few chapters from Serena’s book Winter Wonderland. Her Tiara Club Princesses book wasn’t quite our usual fare and I had planned to read aloud from an online copy of The Borrowers, but WiFi woes intervened. It didn’t matter. It was the reading together, not the book itself, that made it a special time. Our nightly story time was always a favorite when we all lived together and it was one of the many moments I was hoping to recreate. Eric fell asleep after the first few sentences and Serena seemed content to go to bed soon after. Nathaniel, being the oldest and now a teenager, stayed up to talk with me while I got busy catching up with work. The night was oddly identical to the way it had been when we all lived together. Only the house was different.
Two days later it was clear the honeymoon was over. Everyone was grumpy. Serena’s new Nintendo DS was unplayable — she had forgotten to pack her charger and she was out of juice. We all were. It was Saturday and Nathaniel repeatedly threw himself down onto the couch in fits of boredom, asking what we were going to do that day. Do? I had work. I had planned the trip months before to take place at a time when I could get away from work commitments, but the launch of the site I freelance for was postponed and postponed again, and now it exactly coincided with my trip to see my children. I thought I could manage it all — work, travel, kids, motherhood.
I was also disappointed. Seven months had gone by. We had all changed and had new experiences and been around new people. I had expected that newness to come to our interactions now. I wanted to see each of my kids for who they were right in that moment, not who they had been when I was the one making their lunches and tucking them in at night. And I wanted to be myself, the Me that was so much more than the lunchmaker and the bedtucker.
I expected too much. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to swoop in for a week and expect there to be no ties to the past to keep us all bound to who we had been. I felt smothered by the expectation they all seemed to have of me, that this week would magically take away all their little daily hurts and transgressions and all the evidence of living in the real world of growing up, and make them each somehow different as a result. The added layers of expectation made the children difficult to enjoy as they were.
The child I enjoyed most? Maybe it was Eric. Though I was dubious about his Destructo-Man qualities and his penchant for climbing onto furniture and jumping off again in this antique-laden vacation cottage, it was Eric in his Down Syndrome simplicity who was the most like himself that week. Eric cared the least about how I perceived him and he spent the week showing himself — and us — a good time. We couldn’t help laughing at his version of the martial arts kicks practiced by his older brother Nathaniel. Nightly, Eric entertained us all with a show of kicks and hip-swaying dances.
The rest of the week was a blur of driving to three different bus stops and then back again; of holding a scared Eric close in a dark theater while we watched The Tale of Despereaux; of Serena’s sudden distaste for Swiss chard and her new interest in High School Musical; of wrestling with Nathaniel over the one available Ethernet cord and of trying to work the subject of sex casually into the conversation with this new teen; and of my guilty countdown to the day I would head back west without them. Being a part-time parent is much more difficult in some ways than doing it every day, because in the in-between times you have nothing but your own ghosts to confront.
My relief at the release of the tension we held together during my visit was palpable, and I allowed two weeks to slip by after my return west before we talked again. Their voices were distant. I could have been any far-away relative. Our week of pretended intimacy, if intimacy means knowing what they ate that day for lunch or which socks they wore with what outfit, was over.
Clearly we’re still working out what it looks like and what it feels like, this being a family from afar.