Last night, for the first time ever, I put my little girl, my baby, my first-born, on a plane that took her across the ocean- far, far away from me. And for the first time, I understood what my mother felt when she hugged me goodbye as I took my first steps away from her. My daughter may be across the ocean, but I am tethered to her in a way I never quite understood before.
Back in January, I was looking for ways to celebrate James’ 50th birthday. “0″ birthdays are big deals in our family. I was playing with the idea of using fabulous deals available on travelzoo.com, a site that is designed to torture me. And then… the car died. Big bills came due. Money became tighter. So- no family trip to Ireland or San Diego, or really even Disney, a relatively close 3 hours away. At the same time, Vicki decided to go and visit her uncle who is a scientist at Cambridge… in England.. for a month. And she invited all of us to go… All of us. For a month.
Heck, YES! An opportunity to stay in England for FREE?! I was all over that- until I looked at airline prices. For all of us. Which, given our financial limitations, meant that there was enough money for… one.
I briefly considered going. Running away from it all, leaving the children, leaving James to take care of them. For a month. Leaving autism and Tourette’s and tantrums and book due dates and deadlines and…. all of behind… for a month. Far away- across the sea…. ahhhh.
And the responsible mommy, the one who adores her children, the one who knows that such a break would break too much had to decline. But I could give Elizabeth the opportunity.
For Elizabeth, you see, is a traveler. She has been on planes since was 3 months old. She adores the planning, the organization, the feeling of airplanes. New places do not scare her. I have distinct memories of her interpreting the symbols in Switzerland and navigating us through the maze of an international airport. At the age of 3. She can filter out noise and extraneous “stuff” and find the important details. Similar to her abilities with hidden pictures and puzzles, she is able to visually locate and identify what she wants to find. In so many ways, autism works for her now and highlights her abilities.
For months, she and Vicki have been planning this. She was excited that she would miss the 4th of July- fireworks are not her thing. They will go punting on the Thames. They will take tea. They’ll go see Phantom of the Opera- live- in London. They’re going to see “Much Ado About Nothing”- at the Globe Theater. And then, Vicki found an opportunity to go to Paris. As in, not Texas. As in France. Paris- the romance of it is just amazing. I found Grace Potter’s song “Ooo la la” to become her anthem. And they’re going over Bastille Day- which means that Elizabeth won’t miss the fireworks- they’ll just be in a French accent. She’s been practicing French- badly, but learning that there are different ways to say “Hello”. I am now “Maman”.
I have marveled watching her expand her horizons. So many people have asked me “How could you let her go?” and my response has always been, “How could I not let her go?” I trust Vicki a whole lot more than I would trust some sleep-away camp counselor. Vicki understands her need to sleep, her need to reduce stimulation when she’s overwhelmed, her need to plan and have structure. And it’s LONDON! And PARIS!! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I’ve been battling wild envy at the same time that I’m feeling so grateful that my daughter has come this far that she can do this- and that the opportunity came at a time when she is ready to learn about a bigger world. I can’t allow my own fears to get in the way of her growing up.
I helped her pack, full of pride, full of joy, tinged with “Can I go, too?” and a small dribble of sadness at missing her. So many people expressed that they would be afraid; that they would be lonely; that they couldn’t let their daughter go.
Somehow, I am strangely not anxious. I realized why when I was hugging her goodbye, and I realized that I was acting like my mother- and I finally understand the mix of emotions.
When I was 10 years old, I spent two weeks with my father, my step-mother, and my half-brother. I went off for the longest I had ever been away from home. I was nervous, but it ended up being a lovely summer of learning how to play tennis, learning that you can drink tea with cream, the movies “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “Superman”, and staring in the mirror with my brother as we marveled over how similar our faces were. I got letters from my mother almost every day- letters that were full of the small details of our home. Stories about the cat, stories about the weather. Stories that let me know that she loved me, she was thinking of me, and that I always had a place at home. Even as I was exploring new places, I always had a place of my own. That level of security grounded me. It never occurred to me that my mother was very consciously letting me explore at my own pace.
As I followed Elizabeth and Vicki at the airport last night- close, but not hovering; there if she needed me, but far enough away to let her try it on her own, I realized I must be feeling what my mother felt. It’s the same feeling I had when I let her climb the slide at 10 months old- surrounding her with my arms, but not touching. Letting her know that I was there if she fell, but that she could stretch and explore at the same time. I was alert; I was proud, but I was never really scared because I knew that she would be all right. We are tethered together in such a way that mere distance- whether it’s inches from the almost-a-toddler as she crawls up a slide ladder, or across an ocean from the almost-a-teenager- cannot disconnect me from my baby, or my baby from her place.
All day today, I have been aware of her- not her absence, but her presence… elsewhere. “Oh, now she’s landing.” “They must be getting on the train now.” I can sense her tiredness, her clinginess to Vicki and her interest in everything she’s seeing. I can sense her need to hold on to Bunny, her stuffed pink bunny, and Bear, her stuffed pink bear (names have never been her strength). I have been sending her “Mama’s here. Mama’s always here” feelings all day. She’s tired; she’s inundated with the newness- but she’s not overwhelmed. She’s with Vicki, and she’s with Bear- and I’m there for her when she needs to reach out to me. We’re tethered, but not tied.
Instead of letters like my mother wrote, I send her emails. Instead of phone calls, we Facetime. Technology may change, but not the mother instinct – that remains constant.
So- to my mother- I get it now. I get it that our job as a parent is to let them explore their world, while letting them know that we are always there for them. To quote the old phrase, for giving me- and now her- “wings with which to fly and roots from which to grow”. Thank you for giving me that- and giving me a role model to let my daughter explore the slide then- and Paris now.
But I have to admit, I do miss her. And I really, really wish I could experience Paris with her.
If you want to read about her adventures, she’s blogging them at http://allieinternational.wordpress.com. I may be a proud, scared, slightly envious mommy, but I’m still a teacher!