Thursday, July 29, 2010

Preparing to End a Life Chapter

I’ve been feeling a bit panicky lately over the idea of my daughter moving away, and over the last few days it has really been hitting hard. I think it’s because I sense the month of July coming to an end, and there’s something about the month of August that makes me feel a twinge of desperation. In August she leaves.

Naturally, as this time has been approaching, my mind has had a tendency to wander back over the years and examine her life – and my life with her – in not just a sentimental way (oh, that sentimentality thing is there, but it’s not the only thing), but sort of like I think an artist or an author might look over their work once it’s published or presented to the masses. Second guessing things that are too late to change. Questioning, and maybe sometimes rationalizing, and then repeatedly reaching the conclusion that it doesn’t matter now, what’s done is done. Did I do this right? Did I do that right? Was that the correct approach, the correct way to handle things, the correct message I taught? Did I do too much of something, or too little? Was I a good example? Did I do my job well?

When I reflect, as I am sure millions of moms before me have done in the same circumstance as their first baby leaves the nest, and I feel anxious about my self-evaluation, I just go back to asking myself the same question: Did I do the absolute best I could? I can honestly answer “yes”. And I may continue to pick at it like a scab, test myself, see if I am being really honest with myself, but the answer is still always “yes”. That gives me comfort. I did my best, and no one can do better than their best. So, whatever mistakes I may have made, whatever judgment calls probably should have gone differently in retrospect, whatever choices I might tweak just a bit if I had them to make again, I did do my best. And because I know that, and because I reach that same conclusion no matter how many times I repeat the questions in my head, and because I am secure in it, I can let her go out into the world and feel good about the kind of mom I’ve been.

But then there is this: What will I do without her?

This is, as you canprobably infer from my tone, my firstborn child. I had her when I was just twenty years old, and so it occurred to me – this is the one human being who has been with me for all of my adult life, day in and day out, always there. Her father, my ex-husband, left our family for good when she was only five years old and I was still carrying her brother. So, it was her and me. She was there through everything I’ve gone through, always there.

Now, I was fortunate enough (and I say “fortunate enough” rather than “smart enough” because I really cannot take credit for this – other moms in similar circumstances may not have been given the information I was lucky enough to have received) to know better than to lean on my child for emotional support when her father and I separated and I began the challenging life of a single mother. I’d read it somewhere, or heard it somewhere, or both, that you aren’t supposed to do that. I’dlearned, somewhere or somehow, that children in such situations need to know that you are strong and in control, so I let her see that I was strong and in control. Only in recent times, after she’d reached adulthood, did she begin to hear some of the stories of things I’d been through. She expressed shock at the crises and emergencies and traumas that had been going on right in her own home, with her own mom, while she was blissfully unaware. When she was surprised at these things, I was pleased at that response. It meant I’d done my job. I’d shielded her and protected her from the things that were not her job to handle. I am glad someone told me to do that.

As her departure approaches, though, and I look back, I realize something: Even when I was not leaning on her, she was holding me up. She didn’t even know – nor should she have – how much she was providing for me. She kept me busy and amused and entertained when she was little – kindergarten plays and Halloween costumes can be more therapeutic for a young and struggling mom than any of us may be aware of in the moment. As she got a little bigger, she absorbed from me and shared with me my absolute passion for the holiday season; it was she who was by my side on all of the days webaked cookies, through the tedious but wonderful tradition every year of stringing popcorn and cranberries and edible goodies into a garland to hang outside for the birds in our trees, through the annual hunt for just the right Halloween Tree (that’s another story), through the laughter and the crankiness that came along without fail each year as I covered our home in Christmas lights.

She became a pre-teen and we shared a love of movies, then she became a teen and the movies got better (ha ha). By then she could also tell me when the clothes I was wearing were totally uncool, even though I didn’t care. And she didn’t care that I didn’t care; she liked and accepted me just as I was, in my “mom jeans” and tee shirts, with all my quirks. She was able to teach me how to send a text message (although I only did it once). At age sixteen she shocked me by going into the kitchen and whipping up a batch of brownies that I could never in a million years have topped. I had no idea she’d been watching so closely! And also, I now see, I had no idea how much she was sharing with me, and how much she was growing into my friend.

And now my friend is moving away. She isn’t leaving me and she won’t stop being my friend, of course, but she won’t be sharing my daily life anymore. She won’t be there to tell me if that picture looks good by that door, or watch the bad TV shows that are our “guilty pleasure”, or step up and make her most awesome pot roast to feed the family dinner when I am too tired to cook. She won’t be quietly but firmly hushing the boys into another room when I have a headache (no one knows my headaches quite like she does) or sharing our favorite treat with movies - a big bowl of artery-clogging buttered popcorn with a large bag of peanut M&M’s dumped right into it. I feel the loss approaching, getting closer and closer, each time we do something together for what I fear – rationally or irrationally – will be the last time.

My home will never be empty, that I know. I have my son and my beloved “strays”, my foster son and my pseudo-daughters, and there will surely be even more of them to come. But none will ever be that person who was always there, through everything, keeping me company and being my companion. None will ever know me like she does.

You know what’s funny, in a way? My sadness over her leaving actually makes me happy at the same time. It means that I have managed to nurture the kind of relationship with my daughter that leaves this kind of hole behind when it changes and moves on, the kind of relationship that includes so many things worth missing. And that means they were worth having.

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