“Are you going to write about this, Mom?” my daughter Caroline asks me. (She knows I’ve written about her brother.)
The question is half tease, half challenge. I can’t tell whether she wants me to write, or not. Maybe she doesn’t know, either.
Caroline is 18, and she’s about to begin her freshman year at college. She’s moving across the Atlantic Ocean to spend her fall semester on another continent and another time zone from me. She left Tuesday night, on a red-eye flight.
London is five hours ahead of Boston. She’ll be living in my future (literally) instead of in my present. Which seems fitting.
The recent months have been an emotional time for us both. Today, when I was getting my hair cut, I heard a stylist say to someone in her chair, “Hasn’t the weather this summer been awful?”
And I couldn’t for the life of me understand what she was talking about. Because to me, it’s been a wonderful summer.
It’s been a summer full of friends, trips to both coasts, one epic grad party, a sandcastle that should have won first place, even more beach, Taylor, Hillary, outdoor dinners, more family than usual, a new experience commuting into the State House (her), and more nights at home in my own bed instead of on the road (me).
I loved every second of it.
But over all of it hovered a kind of pall.
To call it that seems unnecessarily dramatic; a pall is, after all, the cloth that covers a casket on its final march down the church aisle. Was the situation really so fraught? So heavy? So final?
“I’m not dying,” Caroline reminds me when we start trying on words that describe what we imagine her new life will be. Like when I boil too few noodles, and someone jokes, “Your mom is just getting ready for one less plate at the table.”
No, she’s not dying. And neither am I.
But this summer did have a quality that others before it have not. It did feel like there was a low cloud cover threatening our days. It stayed mostly out to sea, but some days it loomed large enough that you could see it from shore.
On those days, it lent an urgency to enjoying the day—because in just 89 days… or 62 days… or 28… or (finally) 2 or 3 days all of this, everything, was going to shift… and take a turn for the worse.
Or things were going to take a turn, anyway.
Last week, Caroline’s friend Sabrina told us a story about going grocery-shopping with her mom, and realizing that she wouldn’t be home to eat the chicken she was buying. She’d already had the “last meat,” almost without realizing it.
That’s the pall, right there. It was laid and smoothed out over what should have been a simple run to Market Basket.
Things have been like that, this summer.
Then there was the hot water spring that seemed to have collected almost overnight behind my eyes.
A few times over the past week or so, before she left, something would trigger an eruption; and, as my eyes filled, Caroline would flick my arm—literally take her thumb and forefinger and snap, hard, on my forearm, like a correction choke-chain on an over-stimulated Labrador Retriever.
“Nope! We aren’t going to do that right now,” she’d say.
I totally get it, because I don’t understand how that wellspring settled behind my eyeballs, either. (And she talks a good game, but Caroline has a geyser behind her eyeballs, too. It’s just timed to erupt at different times than mine.)
We go to see Meryl Streep and her doppelganger daughter, Mamie Gummer, in Ricki and the Flash. It’s a mediocre movie with a predictable storyline, centered on a mother’s balancing her own aspirations with family.
But there I am in the dark theater, tears stressing down my face, channeling small black tributaries of salty mascara from my eyes to my chin. I regard myself with equal parts self-disrespect and self-disbelief: “I can’t even…”
(Pretty soon, I just stop wearing mascara. I take to wearing sunglasses when I’m out, in case I ran into anyone.)
The anticipation of her leaving was worse than the actual leaving. The morning before her evening flight, her friends (Squad 7 had been reduced to Squad 6, then 5) came to say goodbye in the morning. And they again gathered to see us off in the afternoon.
It was hard, being around these girls I’ve known since forever. I had to leave the room. (I’d forgotten my new rule and had applied mascara.)
In between visits there was a lot of waiting, checking packing lists (again), and mostly glancing at the clock.
It felt like those hours before a funeral, when the house has a kind of self-conscious helplessness: You don’t know what to do with yourself. And even if you could think of something, it’s probably not the appropriate time, anyway.
But then we were on the road and heading into Logan Airport, and something came over me.
Weirdly, it felt right.
There’s a moment when a person becomes a parent: when you shift from me to we.
For some, that happens at their child’s birth, for others it happens much before or much later, but it happens: The axis of the earth shifts suddenly, and your world no longer spins around you. It begins to spin around your child, or your children, or (for some) your nephew, niece, or your dog.
And we realize, with some measure of dismay, that nothing is all about us. Ever again.
Something like that swelled (again) on the trip down Route 93 South toward Logan. The sharp flick to my forearm was metaphorical this time. And self-inflicted.
Maybe because the hour we were anxiously awaiting was here (at last).
Maybe because I was sick of it, and it was time to put my head down, lean into the wind, and charge that last mile toward putting her on the plane to London.
Whatever the reason was… the pall lifted. I checked the water level of the wellspring behind my eyes. It was bone dry.
I glanced at Caroline, her head bent over her phone in the back seat, texting someone. Maybe she was texting her old friends, or the new—the girl she had arranged to meet at Logan. Either way, she was already partially immersed in the life ahead of her. My brave, brilliant girl. God, I am proud of her.
I’d like to tell you that I didn’t cry when I hugged her goodbye. But I kissed her damp cheek and I cried into her hair (no mascara) as we hugged for one last time before she wiped her face and headed into security.
Her dad and I and the rest of the parents hovered just on the other side of the stanchion. We craned our necks for a peek at the back of their heads before they disappeared, not unlike a lot of us did 13 years ago, parked strategically at the edge of the kindergarten playground just to watch them line up before they were led inside.
Somehow this felt okay. It felt right. I kept asking myself, as her dad and I drove home: Am I just numb? Should I be more unhinged?
When we pull down the street at dusk, we see our neighbor putting her trash barrels at the curb. (The days are getting shorter, I think, and at the same time consider how this scene feels overwritten: The return from the college drop-off; the shorter days that signal how everything comes to an end; the time of day (twilight); and the discarding of things we can’t use.)
We pull over. She knows where we’ve been.
“How was she?” she asks. And I hug her through the car window and cry again. But it’s not the wellsprings that erupt this time. This time the tears are just grief (I miss her already), but also (I notice) some happy tears that come from a full heart.
“It’s like a break-up,” my friend Eileen says to me. I know what she means—the slight shock of desertion.
But it’s also not like a break-up, because we feel both bereft but also a wee bit ridiculous for feeling bereft. Our kids are doing what they should do, and what we want them to.
Parenting works best when you let go. Love rolls downhill.