I saw it coming. The day the dollhouse moved out to be replaced with wall-to-wall and ceiling posters. The day the Beanie Babies found a new home in my closet. The day the posters came down to be replaced with framed photographs.
I saw it coming. But I wasn’t fully prepared.
I was late to parenting. She was born when I was 39; he was born when I was 40. I spent a lot of my early years dreaming of being a parent — naming and re-naming children decades before they were born. Thinking maybe eight, then six, then four; then, after two miscarriages, deciding two would be great. Two would be perfect!
No one ever said that parenting was about loss, about saying goodbye. Or maybe they said it, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. The saying goodbye starts so early — when you no longer have the sweet-smelling newborn with wrinkled skin, when you pack away the baby clothes, when the child no longer crawls into your bed in the morning, when you are no longer needed or wanted for help with homework — and you never know it’s the last time … until it is over.
But this was different. I saw it coming. High school. Senior year. Applying for college. Getting accepted. Summer. Then it was time to go.
We packed the car with jeans, new pillows, framed artwork from ComicCon, a shiny new kettle and a string of white paper lanterns. We drove past fields and orchards in the valley, listened to Old Crow Medicine Show, Mumford & Sons, many others; drove through the entire 109-song play list, got a speeding ticket in Bakersfield (mine — teachable moment), went through a rainstorm in the desert, and, descending the mountains, we got there.
We busied ourselves unloading the car, meeting the roommate, finding things on campus, buying last-minute items: extension cords, tissue, tea bags, a crate for filing school work, snacks. When it was time to leave for the drive back without her, no tears were shed. This is the perfect school for her, I said. She couldn’t be in a better place, I said.
That part I was prepared for.
Then I woke up in a house where she is still so present. I went in to clean up her room. I removed the sheets where she had slept. I picked up small bits of cardboard from where she had unpacked new items before loading them in the car. I emptied her trash. I touched the life she was leaving behind. For a brief moment, I touched the past.
At the kitchen table I read the newspaper, thoughtlessly setting aside the comics for her. I went to pick up bagels and got excited that pumpkin is already in, but she is not here to be excited with me or to enjoy the seasonal flavor we love. I notice in the paper that Chalk-it-Up is returning — maybe she’d like to go again this year — oh, she won’t be here. So this is the new life.
I am surprised by all the fleeting thoughts that have to be corrected — she’ll be coming in to say good morning, she’ll need the water hot for tea, she’ll be here to walk the dogs and so on. And yet I celebrate. I celebrate that there were teachers who cared and who touched her life and who helped prepare her for this day. I celebrate that there were friends along the way who shared special moments of childhood with her.
I celebrate that the college admissions committee saw in her application someone they wanted. I celebrate that she felt strong and ready to take this leap — to leave her town, her family, and most of all, her pets. The pets who were there when no one else could ease the pain, when no one else could ease the sorrow, when no one else understood. The pets who made life more fun, who put a smile on her face, who cuddled long after mom and dad could not.
So this is parenting. A million goodbyes partnered with a million new discoveries. Growing together partnered with growing apart. Finding our way through each new transition. Redefining our roles. Thankful for our years together. Realizing how much I have learned from getting to be her mom. Thankful that this type of goodbye is not forever.
And in this moment of celebration and gratitude, I wish there were some comfort I could offer to the parents whose goodbyes have been forever, and to the children whose parents did not live to see this day. My awareness of their reality softens my day, helps me embrace the moment, reminds me that life itself is fleeting, fragile and precious. And so it goes.
— J. Ann Moylan is a Davis resident and a professor of family and consumer sciences at Sacramento State.