A new chapter starts tomorrow. We’ll be meeting a lovely young woman at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Our 16-year-old daughter has been in France the entire summer, a full five weeks spent with extended family in Lyon. I know she will be older when we reunite.
We stood in the airport, stalling our goodbyes. “Uh, here’s something I have for you. It’s not a big deal. Something I wrote, kind of cheesy I know.” It was late June, and we were standing near the security entry point. Our eldest self-consciously burrowed in her handbag to produce two envelopes. One was labeled “dad and mom,” the other addressed to her brother. When her voice cracked, my tears fell fast and furious.
Was our child ready for this?
I hugged her and let her go. She walked confidently toward security, passport and boarding pass in hand, ready for untold adventures in a country whose language and culture captivated her long ago. Not only was she born in Germany, she’s already lived abroad in Dubai and London. Her passport is a colorful testimony to the places she’s been, a hint of all she’s experienced. She walked away from us and, incredibly, she didn’t look over her shoulder. Suddenly, the crowds of travelers swallowed her up. I couldn’t see her anymore.
Travel was not a new experience; traveling alone was. Was our child ready? She might feel alone, panic, and I wouldn’t be there.
When she was 8 years old, I definitely knew she wasn’t ready. But neither was I. Blood had filled her mouth from falling headlong onto a parking lot off a pogo stick we’d bought her moments before. Her face was swelling, changing to a purplish hue. She had a reputation for her pogo stick abilities, and we hadn’t minded her giving this newer model a try before driving home. She was exuberant about her new pogo stick. Now suddenly we were racing to the emergency room. Her horrified expression showed the shock of knowledge, a loss of innocence sharp as sunlight off a mirror.
It’s not fair, she’d babbled through her bloody mouth as I rocked her in the backseat, frantically calling a dentist friend in Atlanta for immediate advice. Her front tooth was now halved. I had searched the pavement and miraculously rescued the violated half, tucking it into my pocket in case the dentist could make things right for her. For me.
The ER receptionist wagged her finger at me and asked my husband, “But is she going to be OK?” I was white and sagging in a plastic waiting room chair, our daughter’s smashed face and destroyed smile graphically splayed across my mind. And there was the question of head injury, the ER doctor told us.
That fall did as much for me as it did for our little girl. It taught her that life isn’t fair. Life can change on a dime and without warning. I learned that life wasn’t ever going to ask my permission: “May I teach your daughter a personal lesson about bad things happening to good people?”
She permanently fell out of love with pogo sticks and took her time returning to her inline skates, razor scooter and bike. I should have just been glad to see her flushed with confidence, but when I waved at her petite figure biking away from me down a city sidewalk toward high school, my throat hurt.
“Be careful!” I called.
Was I ready for this?
Such loss of control seemed to barrel over all the tenets of motherhood. There are hundreds of ways we try to protect our children from harm, starting with the basics, like strapping them into government-approved car seats. Later it’s doing due diligence and using parent-control software to protect against predators on the Internet. Dermatologists and orthodontists help complexions and smiles so our kids aren’t subjected to ostracism by mean teens. I fostered the intense but unrealistic wish to spare our daughter from life’s cruelties.
She’s just a child, after all. She’ll have to face hurts later.
But in that freshman year of high school, a classmate she admired took his life. I wanted to absorb the sadness into myself. Instead, I witnessed our daughter reeling with a new, unfamiliar pain. I wanted to be the superhero mom, like Elastigirl from the Incredibles, who could magically reach far and wide to rescue her young from peril. I couldn’t because I wasn’t.
As a mom, the illusion of control ruthlessly started crumbling years ago. Yet it still plays games with me now and then, mocking me like a grinning goblin.
A self-reliant young woman is returning tomorrow, I know. Confidentially, though, she did travel with raggedy Big Ears in her backpack, a stuffed rabbit she received as a child. Unlike life, Big Ears promises a reassuring predictability.
This story was originally published by BLUNTmoms.
Related post: The Myth of Protection