June 26 – July 1, 2008
My oldest child left home for the first time today. Six days stretched out before me as vast as the Sahara as I thought of the 1400 miles between home and the city of New Orleans, where my little girl was headed for a choir festival. The bus carrying thirty-something excited teenaged choir members and one cranky director pulled out of the parking lot, leaving behind a group of parents with cheerful smiles pasted on their faces to hide the tears welling in their eyes and the pain welling in their hearts. Suddenly it seemed there wasn’t enough oxygen in the air I was breathing…my chest constricted painfully in the region around my heart and I found it nearly impossible to breathe. The picture of my little girl waving somewhat sadly out the window of the bus morphed in my mind to become a young lady in cap and gown and then a young woman in a wedding gown, walking away from me, this time forever. This was it, I thought, the first of the goodbyes…the letting go was beginning and I didn’t think that I could bear it. I looked around me and saw a few mothers surreptitiously wiping away tears, but most were smiling and all looked normal. How could this be? Was I the only one devastated by the realization that we had opened a door that could never be shut again? Or were the others just more adept at hiding these gut-wrenching emotions…or did they not feel it at all? I stumbled to the car, managing to hold the tears at bay, until from the 10-year-old in the back seat I heard, “Are you gonna cry now, Mom?” And the tears began…
There followed one of the longest days of my life. Funny how even a quiet child’s absence can make the stillness seem so magnified. The minutes ticked by and I couldn’t seem to focus on much of anything. Added to the day’s pain was the act of saying goodbye to my childhood home as my parents’ closed on the sale of their house…my home since the age of twelve until the time I got married. Finally, it was night and time to escape into the numbness of sleep. I went to bed with my cellphone parked nearby on the dresser…just in case. When the ringing of the phone shattered the absolute stillness of the night at 3 AM, I leapt out of bed in one bound and grabbed the phone, looking at the display to see who was calling. In the space of three seconds, I had covered all the dreadful possibilities: Molly was injured, sick, lost, unhappy, or…no, please God, not that. The phone number was unfamiliar, with an area code I thought to still be Colorado, but I really wasn’t sure. I answered the phone breathlessly, with panic in my voice… “H-h-h-ello?” There was a click as the caller hung up, probably realizing it was a wrong number and not wanting to take responsibility for waking some poor soul at three in the morning. My heart pounded as I repeated, “hello, hello?” If that caller had only known that he took ten years off my life with that one misdialed number.
The second day we received our much bargained for phone call late in the afternoon. The choir director refused to allow the kids to bring cell phones and it was only after much hard negotiation and firm posturing that she agreed to allow Molly to call home twice in six days. It was our daughter’s first time ever away from home alone, and we knew she (and we) needed to make contact to survive six days apart. She was nervous about her first steps out of the nest, and being out of touch for a week is just not how we do things in our family. The phone call finally came, after carrying around that cell phone for hours, repeatedly checking it to make sure a call hadn’t been missed. The tightness in my chest returned, thinking, what if she doesn’t call? The choir director had tried to renege on her promise of two phone calls, and I didn’t trust her to deliver on her agreement with us. My need to hear her voice was so great that it was a physical yearning. The phone rang, I answered, and within a few seconds knew she was okay, just from the tone of her voice. She admitted to having a hard time first thing that morning and to feeling anxious, wanting to just come home. Then they got busy with their very full schedule, and she started having fun. I could tell from the lightness in her voice and the speed of her words that she was embracing an adventure, as we had prayed for our sometimes timid child to be able to do. My mom genes kicked in, enabling me to refrain from saying, “I miss you so much…please come home”, and making me cheerfully say, “I’m so glad you’re having fun…tell me all about it.” We finished our all-too-short conversation (mandated by the choir director) and hung up the phone. My hand lingered on the button, reluctant to hang up and cut off that brief contact with my daughter, feeling as if the umbilical cord were being cut all over again. As the dial tone buzzed in my ear, the tears began again.
Two more days passed and a second call was received, even shorter than the first. Somehow, she sounded different to me…older, more confident even. She joyously shared some of her adventures (including feeding marshmallows to alligators) and when asked if the swamp tour was scary (she had not thought that was such a great idea), she nonchalantly replied, “No, it was cool, Mom.” I could almost hear the twang of the apron strings snapping, the footsteps as she walked off into her future. More tears followed, although they were mostly hidden due to the fact that we were in a crowded restaurant. Yet a sense of pride swelled, too, that our beautiful little girl was becoming such a competent young woman, facing her fears and trying new things without shrinking back. Maybe, as she grows up, I will, too, and God will enable me to turn loose of this beautiful butterfly that is forming. Please, God, not just yet…I don’t think I’m ready.
Finally, the day arrived when my precious daughter would return home. The hours seemed to pass even more slowly on this day, the hands on the clock somehow refusing to move. Favorite cookies were baked, her sheets were changed and flowers were purchased to welcome her home. Still it wasn’t time to leave for the airport…I felt like a child waiting for Christmas to arrive. After much cajoling, I finally convinced my husband to leave for the airport, well ahead of the necessary time. “We’ll end up sitting at the airport for an hour,” he complained, to which I answered, “Better at the airport than stuck in traffic, frantic because we know we’ll be late to pick her up! Plus, look, it’s starting to rain…what if we run into bad weather, or construction, or traffic, or…” He sighed a longsuffering sigh and got up to gather his shoes, keys, etc, knowing there was no arguing with Mama Bear desperate to see her cub. The hour-long ride to the airport was interminable and as my husband predicted, we arrived at the airport well ahead of schedule. I thanked him for being patient with me and reminded him again that I would rather wait at the airport and not be stressed. He smiled and shook his head and we headed into the terminal. The kids were anxiously checking the time and calculating how long it would be before her plane landed. We found seats in the airport and commenced the wait, visiting with other choir members’ families who were also eagerly awaiting the return of the kids. About forty-five minutes later, the first lime green T-shirts appeared up the escalator, waving wildly and pointing as they recognized familiar faces. One boy ran off the escalator and threw his arms around me, saying, “It’s Molly’s mom!” I pointed him in the direction of his own mother and resumed watching. All of the boys exited first, and headed off to baggage claim. A few more minutes went by with no sign of the girls. We correctly predicted they had stopped at the restrooms on the way out. Finally, more lime green T’s were visible and at last, there she was. I frantically studied her face, wondering if she would be so changed that she would be unfamiliar…but, thankfully, there she was, looking just the same. Her little sister reached her first and hung on for dear life. I was a close second, giving hugs and kisses and checking her over to see if she was truly returning to me unscathed.
She began talking excitedly, telling us of her adventures and how happy she was to be home. She pulled out Mardi Gras beads for each of us and hung them around our necks. The next several hours were spent hearing every detail of her trip and relishing the very sight of my girl. She gave us a photo tour of her adventures and we talked long into the night. Much to my relief, she still seemed like my little girl, just maybe a little more confident, a little more self-assured. My fears dissolved as she told me over and over how much she’d missed us, showing me that although my little butterfly has sprouted wings, her favorite place to fly is still toward home. Some of the apron strings may have been severed, but they have been replaced with strings of her choosing. Our ties that bind are deeper now than that of a child, they are the bonds of love that last forever. My precious girl may fly away someday, but we’ll always be part of each other, forever, no matter what distance lies between us. If I give her the freedom to fly, she’ll gladly return to me when she needs a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, an unconditional love.
So, we’ve survived that first painful separation, and my heart is joyous once again at having my family complete. We’ve both learned and grown and realized what a precious thing is the bond called family. I’ve learned a little more how to place her in the hands of her Creator and trust Him for supplying all her needs. Maybe the next time won’t be so hard…or maybe it will be even harder…only time will tell.
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