Leave and Learn

Having trouble separating from your children on the opening day of school? Separation from our children goes deep.

The sun rose at 6:30 on the morning of August 22 in the hills above Philo, California. I know because I was awake to greet it having risen, myself, at 5:30 like clockwork. You’d think I thought it was my responsibility to make sure the sun got up all right.
And indeed, it did rise beautifully. This Sunday morning the dense fog bank that has plagued northern California for a month seemed to be thinning out over the coastal range to the west. In the east the mists now lay (as they should) like blue-tinted cotton batting in the valleys below me, and they were beginning to rise in fibrous filaments toward the bluing sky.
However, it was much later that day that it finally dawned on me that in five days I would be leaving California. My 28-year-old architect daughter Katie and I had agreed that our goal for the weekend was to get the roof on the new dormer we were adding to the old cabin we built together sixteen years earlier.

This goal was a stretch for one weekend, and yet Katie seemed to focus her energy on “tidying up.” The books had to be moved from the shelf on the northwest corner of the cabin to a new shelf on the southeast. The pile of New Yorkers had to be moved from the table by the couch to the box by the stove for burning. The collection of canned food that I had been accumulating (You-never-know-when-you-are-going-to-be-hungry-and-cold-and-you-will-be-so-happy-you-just-happen-to-have-a-can-of-Campbell’s-Chicken-Noodle-Soup-right-there-on-the-shelf-by-the-hot-wood-burning-stove-where-you-stashed-it-12-years-ago-for-just-such-an-eventuality.) had to be thinned–nay dumped unceremoniously into a bag for removal.

When, pointing at a cardboard box with a mouse hole in the corner, she asked me if I or anyone would ever wear any of these shoes again, I was suddenly hit by a wave of grief.

I was leaving. I was moving 2000 miles away, and I didn’t know when I would see her, or this cabin, or these trees, or this mountain, or our house in the city, or California, or my friends, or daughters, or grandson, again. It finally dawned on me that my stepdaughter, Lizzie, was also going off to college, and that I was facing separation.

I had been through this before, of course. We all have. I still remember my new teacher standing next to my four-year-old self holding my four-year-old hand in my new school yard. My mother had driven out the driveway to go back home to get my sweater that she had “forgotten.”
“Where do you think your Mom is now?” asked Mrs. Olsen.
“Um. I think she is on the way,” said sad little Ricky, thoughtfully.

As an adult I have built and left four schools. That’s four communities of close friends and colleagues. On my last day at my first school I walked through the cavernous empty corridors trying to adjust. As I drove out the driveway the pain flowed up from my chest like lava and burst out of my mouth like rage. By my reckoning I have made and left 10 sets of friends since kindergarten. The pain is always there.
When you love something or someone, you can’t believe you will ever leave them, and so your brain builds a barrier–a Palestine wall–between your self and the reality–the certainty–that leaving is part of the deal.

“Will anyone ever wear these shoes again?” It only took an “innocent” question from a daughter for that wall to come crashing down. Thanks to the putterings of my youngest child, I finally felt the deluge of emotion attendant upon yet another leaving.

When driving back to the city I told Katie I was sad. She looked at me, put her hand on my shoulder and with a burst of love, said: “You are grieving. You have been in denial. You are actually the last one to understand that you are leaving for the Midwest.”

One of the many joys of children! Why had we picked the last two months of my last summer in California to build a dormer on the old cabin? Now I know. Yes, we were creating space for more people to come and enjoy what we have enjoyed, but we were also building a monument to our love.

Launching our children off into the world at the age of five with no more baby in them is also a monument to our love. We trust them to be able to suffer the “slings and arrows” of the world on their own, and now under the watchful eyes of new loving adults.

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2 thoughts on “Leave and Learn

  1. Today I watched the sunrise, and though I am not leaving for anywhere, my heart certainly is. My oldest child leaves tonight for Bangkok, Thailand, where she will train as a teacher, and teach English for a year. Though she has spent her college years 3000 miles away in Boston, and spent a semester in Europe, 6000 miles away, this is the farthest she’s ever gone, and for the longest period of time. It is in a parent’s DNA to worry, to want what’s best for your child, and I do. I know this is a great opportunity for her, something she’s wanted to do for a long time, and that she will be fine. So will I, but I must say – watching her leave to walk through that security line tonight will probably feel like watching her start crying in the kindergarten line on the first day of school, and knowing that I have to step back, hide my own tears, and let her go.

  2. Thank you. Beautifully said. This is exactly what I felt when my eldest, Brooke, walked down the long read corridor to the plane that would take her to France 28 years ago. (This was back before “security” and you could say goodbye to your child at the gate.) She was 16. Yes. Thank you.

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