In July of 2003, my normally sanguine daughter took up crying jags. They came from seemingly nowhere, like afternoon storms on sunny summer days. I remember holding her 5-year-old self in my lap by the side of a pool, on our back deck, on the edge of her bed, rubbing her back with my hand to calm her ragged breathing. She couldn’t tell me what her tears were about.
Eventually, in mid-August, she could:
“Lindy is going to college, and I am going to kindergarten, and then I’ll go to middle school, and then high school, and then I’ll have to go to college, too, and then I won’t be able to live with you any more!”
Lindy, her older sister, was indeed preparing to leave us for college, and Grace was on her way to kindergarten.
“And you know I don’t like change!” she sobbed.
Me either, I thought, holding her close to me, full of my own feelings about all the changes bearing down on us.
As is usual, Grace was correct about how things were going to go: She did go to kindergarten, and middle school, and high school, and college. At one point–probably in early middle school–she told me she’d settled on Reed College as her preferred institution of higher education because it was both a good school and one that she could get to from our home on Mt. Hood using only public transportation, “so you won’t have to drive me.” She showed me the bus routes she’d need to take (she’d mapped it all out): a nearly two-hour commute one way, but that, she said, would give her plenty of time to study and read.
“You know, ” I said, “by the time you’re ready for college, you probably won’t want to live at home any more.” She assured me that I was wrong about that. She was too old for me to hold close the way I had when she was five and she had no need for me to, but I wanted to.
As it turned out, she did not go to Reed. She went to Georgetown, more than 3,000 miles from home. I suppose she could have traveled there by bus, but it has not been, in any way, an easy commute from our home to her school. Although she’d once been to DC on a trip with her grandparents, she’d never set foot on campus before she packed up her life into two bags she could take on an airplane and flew away with them. She did not choose this school because of a desire to be far from home. In the calculus of risk and reward, costs and benefits, Georgetown was the logical choice, and the girl we nicknamed Spock grew into a young woman who made all important choices from the head more than the heart.
The day she left, mine broke a little–with pride (what a brave thing she was doing!) and gratitude (what opportunities she would have!) and sorrow. Her new beginning was the ending of my most important and rewarding work.
As it turned out, once she left she never came back home to live. She got summer jobs in DC every year and made a whole life for herself there. It’s nice, sometimes, how we can’t know how things are really going to go. I don’t know how it might have been for me if I’d known on that day she walked out our front door that she wouldn’t come home to live again for her four years of college. Even harder than it was, I suppose.
Yesterday was supposed to be her graduation day. Her grandmother and I were supposed to fly east to watch her line up and march and get her papers and celebrate her work and accomplishments. Then, she was supposed to come home for a visit with her boyfriend before returning to DC to work this summer. Instead, she flew west alone, once again with her whole life packed into a few bags, to live with me at least through the summer, maybe longer. We can’t know for sure.
We can never know for sure, something I wish I’d understood when I was standing where she is now. At 22, I thought of life as being something like a novel, a cohesive narrative that could be broken into chapters, each one leading inevitably to the next. That is why it felt so important, especially then, to make the right authorial choices: each would create and eliminate a host of others. Choose wrong, and some beautiful plot lines (about love, children, work, home) would never be written.
Now I can see that if life is like a book, it is more a collection of linked short stories than a novel or an epic poem. It is filled with endings and beginnings, full stops and new starts and long pauses, episodes of living complete unto themselves. Some characters appear only once, while others drift in and out of the larger and looser narrative, sometimes at the center of the action and sometimes only at its periphery. The white space between one story’s ending the the next’s beginning is not empty: It is full of breath, rest, possibility, and actions so small or insignificant they aren’t worth noting–unless, suddenly, they are, at which point a new story begins.
My girl who hated change and clung to family and once charted her options in kaleidoscopic color-coded spreadsheets–a hedge against missed opportunities and lesser choices–has grown into an independent woman who still makes plans but no longer fits them into tiny digital boxes. I’m watching her lean into this moment in the world that is intersecting with this moment of her life, one that’s blown the boxes to bits in ways that are both terrifying and freeing, creating a horizon full of nothing certain but uncertainty and change.
The gift in this moment that has writ the future’s uncertainty large is that she can see clearly what many of us hard-working good students who once traveled through that profound transition between school and everything beyond school did not. We faced a similar horizon; we just didn’t know it. We looked out and thought we could see just how our stories would unfold, believed the major points of our plots were inevitable–or at least within our power to control. We didn’t pause long enough to see how wide open everything really was, to scan for roadblocks and pitfalls and possibilities of all sorts, to consider all the different destinations available to us. We just kept marching inexorably forward.
So, while I am sad, worried, and fearful about many things for all of our children, I’m finding a little something to be grateful for in this moment of unexpected endings and delayed beginnings and narrative threads that threaten to snap. What I might have given to have understood, much sooner than I did, that my most important choices were going to be about how to respond to plot twists I couldn’t control and never saw coming. I’m grateful, too, to know that my smart, strong, brave, thoughtful daughter will, as she’s always done, make the most of the gifts she’s been given, even the ones wrapped in the dark paper of this time.