I warned him. I told him not to tease my friends. Their first-borns are leaving for college in a few days. Did he listen to me? Of course not. “So when do we break out the slideshow of J’s birth through teen years?” Yep, that’s what my husband said. The reply (with me yelling in the background… “I told you to be nice!”) was, “go ahead, say what you want. I don’t know if you’ll get laughter or tears. I never know which it will be at any given moment. This is a very emotional week.”
It was a quiet gathering of friends. I offered pizza and bean dip and few words. I knew there was nothing I could say to comfort them. I just wanted to show I cared and would listen if they wanted to talk.
I had a glimpse of their pain this past June when I dropped my daughter, Elle, off at Columbia University for three weeks. We had just spent an intense three days together in the city and on a sunny Sunday morning we arrived at the college campus two suitcases in hand. One was hers and one mine. I had two hours to get her settled and then I was off to JFK.
We both were overwhelmed by the newness of it all. The campus was huge and unfamiliar. Worry overcame me. What was I thinking, letting my daughter spend three weeks in New York City? I’d be too far away if she needed me. Sure she’s strong and independent but this is a city – not Cape Coral. I remembered my excitement when I was eighteen, moving into the Beacon Hotel on the Upper West Side. I was more than ready to begin my adult life on my own. Just months before my father had thought he’d scare me and took me to The Big Apple for the first time thinking I’d be intimidated and never want to move there. His plan failed. I fell in love, prepared an audition for AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy) got in and started classes in the Fall. Now, I was walking in his shoes. I understood why he gave me specific boundaries within the city. I was eighteen, from a small town and naive much like my daughter. I suppose it was because of my experience at eighteen that I understood her desire to tackle the city on her own. At least she was in a college environment, she’d have a curfew, and two RA’s looking after her.
We rode the elevator to her dorm. Inside I was shaking. On the outside I was smiling. Usually I am very good at holding back tears but I could feel them building, waiting for just the right thought to open the ducts and let them spill down my face. Every time I pictured us saying good-bye I had to take a deep breath and change my thoughts to buying her extra towels or finding a cafe for lunch. Anthing to keep busy.
We were greeted by two kind young women, her RA’s who had decorated the suite in a disco theme. I tried to talk to them and appear cheery but my mind was in a fog. I didn’t want to leave.
Elle’s dorm was bare. The two of us rearranged her bed and desk to make room for the wheelchair. I placed the PlayBills from the musicals we had just seen on a shelf to add color. Elle said it made her happy to look at them. Then I began unpacking her suitcase and that’s when it hit me. Even though I knew she’d only be gone for three weeks the reality of her leaving after her senior year came pouring over me. It was no longer something that would happen in the very distant future. Something that I could put in the back of my mind. It was going to happen soon and this was a peek into what I’d feel. An ending. An ending of a way of life that I had known for eighteen years. She was not mine to keep forever in the same house, always knowing where she was or what she was doing even though I had convinced myself otherwise. All those years of saying “my daughter” was a bit deceiving. She is her own person and not mine.
In life there are firsts. Exhilarating, frightening firsts and that’s what it is like to have your first child. Suddenly your life is not your own but someone else’s. You can no longer be completely selfish about your dreams and desires because your first priority is your child. The love mixed with the responsibility is overwhelming and like no other. My identity went from Krista to mom. I took on that role with enthusiasm and often struggled with the balance between the two. Mom had a family to take care of and Krista had to sit in the background and not be selfish. Kids first – always.
Next thing I know, I’m in a college dorm unpacking a suitcase wondering how it happened. How did I get to this point? For the first time I’m seeing the big picture. I’m able to see that being a mom was part of my journey and that the path that I thought would go on forever was coming to an end. I look back at almost eighteen years and see the baby in my arms smiling at me . I see the one year old pushing a child sized grocery cart blabbering on and on telling me something very important in toddlereze. I see the girl coming home from school and practicing her violin. I see the tween surrounded by friends climbing on her lap and pushing her wheelchair down the sidewalk. And I see the young woman dressed for the prom sliding into a limo with her friends. I feel sadness because just as I can never return to my childhood in E-town, or relive those precious times with my grandparents when my kids were little, this too is an ending to which I can only look back and remember. My baby, the one I have cared for, laughed with, cried with, given so much of everything I’ve had and love more than she can understand – is leaving soon. I’m looking back, older and wiser, but inside a bit baffled at how much time has passed and how I still feel like the same young woman who used to walk through the Pennsylvania woods alone, listening to the birds sing and dreaming of her future.
Now, that time is almost here for Elle. My role as mom is leading me down a new path, one where I must trust in everything that I have taught her and one where I must have faith that she will make more good choices than bad. I have to have the courage to let go and the belief in the goodness of people that will fill her life in my absence.
My cell phone rang. The taxi was on its way to pick me up and take me to the airport. I hugged Elle and reminded her that I’d drop everything and get to her side if she ever needed me. I told her how proud I was of her, of all she had accomplished, her bravery, and of what she was to become. I thought about our first days at home together after she was born, how scared I was. I hugged her good-bye. An ending. A beginning.