On the day I take my daughter to the airport, a Facebook friend posts about needing some advice on how to keep her house clean now that everyone is home all the time.
I want to tell her that she is, perhaps, asking the wrong question, but I don’t want to be one of those moms. I remember a day I stood in front of a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes in a drafty, rambling split-entry with four bedrooms and three bathrooms and two living rooms that I could never seem to get entirely clean at the same moment and wishing I could just have some time to myself and a tidy home. The next moment, I told myself that there would come a day when I would have plenty of time to myself and I would long for these days with my house full of the people I love, messy as it is.
I was right.
I was also wrong, in the sense that I didn’t know how quickly the day would come, or how empty the house would feel, or that the wantings are not, in any way, really, equivalent.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I google “are humans pack animals.” The answers are neither satisfactory nor clear, and I decide that it doesn’t matter. I am a pack animal, and I know it.
I am also an introvert, which is not a contradiction. In fact, it may be why I need my pack the way I do. My daughter, and only a few others, are in it. We can spend whole evenings in separate rooms of the same house, but it is an easy, companionable separation. It fills the house in the right way, and when I return home after taking her to the airport, it feels empty in a way I’d already forgotten it could be, after having her here for a few months.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, a friend shares a photo of taking her daughter to college for the first time and I wonder if I should tell her that she might have included a trigger warning.
On the night before I take my daughter to the airport, I help her wax her legs. We watch YouTube videos about how to make a wax from sugar and lemon. Her first batch is a gooey, scorched mess that turns to rock in cold water, and I am afraid it will harden in my kitchen pipes and ruin my pan.
“Oh, never mind,” she says. “I don’t need to do this.”
“No,” I say. “Let’s try again.” I am not sure why, but I really want this to work. I want to do this thing for her, with her.
I re-watch the videos and take over the stove duty. She sits on the couch with the dogs and TikTok videos. I call progress checks to her, testing the wax every minute or so, to catch it at just the right temperature. I feel triumphant when I carry to her a small ball that molds in our fingers just like the wax in the video.
We sit in the living room together, watching Frozen while she waxes her legs, and then the end of Coco, which we’d started the night before and abandoned when I couldn’t stay awake, and then Frozen II. When she came home in May, she bought a subscription to Disney+ and rewatched every single episode of Hannah Montana while she was stuck in quarantine. From her end of the hall I’d hear, “You get the best of both worlds” over and over and over. It was an ear worm for days.
When I moved to the big house I could never get entirely clean, I canceled cable, which meant canceling the Disney channel. If I had only understood how much those shows meant to her, I would have chosen different corners to cut in the house that I couldn’t, in so many ways, afford. (I couldn’t have known then, though. Not really. Some things we can see only from a distance.)
Frozen is my choice. I think there might be something in Elsa’s story that I need to see. I want to learn how to manage things (anger, fear, grief) that so often feel unmanageable now, how to let them go without destroying everything around me. But it is the signature song of Coco that turns into an ear worm the day I take my daughter to the airport:
Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, the house’s emptiness when I return is a presence all its own. The dogs run to her bedroom door, and I open it for them.
“She’s not here,” I tell them. I lift them on to her bed, where they settle in to sleep under her covers, one curled into the other.
I think of the night before, and of how it has only been in the most recent of days that I’ve felt able to fully relax into her return home, to let myself really feel how much I love having, again, the kind of regular, everyday time we’ve been able to have, and I think of how I wish I’d been able to have a whole summer of such days.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I come to understand two things:
1. Today’s good-bye is a dress rehearsal. She will be back in 10 days, but the next time I take her to the airport she likely won’t be coming back in the same way ever again. She will be going to another continent to live, intending to build a life where she and I won’t share the casual intimacies of life lived together in our pack. I understand that for all our efforts to remain close during the years she was away at school, we could not maintain over time and distance the kind of bond that comes from sharing such mundane things as regular meals, informal visits, shopping and walks and boring errands, parcels of time so bountiful we can afford to waste some. We won’t have the kind of ease that comes with proximity and abundance.
2. The careful peace I constructed when she moved away the first time was a house of cards, and I need to figure out how to make a more solid structure in which to live what remains of my life.
On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I have to get out of my house filled with absence. I drive up to the mountain, to the river where I raised my children for the first half of their lives. It is not that I want to go back in time; that mountain, that river, was a place I once needed to leave, too. But sometimes, we need to go back to figure out how to move forward. I want to get grounded, literally. I want to dig my toes in the river’s sand, to let its water cool my feet. I need to see water flowing past me.
I spread a blanket in some shade, doze to the sound of children playing in the water with their mother. I sit on land one of my children once named Dogarnia, and another called The Forest of Enchanted Wieners. Rule of this kingdom was hotly contested. When I close my eyes, I can see them climbing in the trees, our tiny Dachshunds kicking up sand as they run in circles around us.
I want to call across the water to that other mother. I want to tell her: Imprint this day in your memory. Don’t worry about what you’re going to make for dinner or how you’re not getting the house clean before starting another work week. Soak yourself in these moments, right now, so that later you can remember this sun-drenched summer day when all of you were golden. But I don’t. I don’t know her life, and I don’t want to impose my reality and regrets on hers. Also, no one in the thick of it wants to hear this kind of thing from some stranger whose time has passed.
On the afternoon of the day I take my daughter to the airport, I understand another thing: My attempts to keep my house of cards intact, to keep her unexpected stay from coming in and blowing down my hard-won peace was futile and stupid. I’ve let anticipatory grief rob me of embracing all that she–and this terrible, unexpected, wonderful chance to mend and grow and be together–brings. She, like all children, was born to make and remake me, to strip me to my foundations, to give me reasons to build (and build again). I see now that I cannot protect my heart by clinging to what I constructed the first time she left. It served me well enough, I suppose, but now I need something strong enough to stand, open, both when she comes and when she goes. Because I have to let her go; that is what I was born to do.
The morning after I take my daughter to the airport, the sun is shining. I’d woken in the middle of the night, hot because I wasn’t blasting the AC the way she does, and I responded to a text she’d sent to let me know that she’d safely arrived.
“Omg go to sleep,” she’d answered. It was daytime for her, but 1:00 AM for me. I’m sure she thought I’d stayed awake waiting for her text.
At 6:30, when I wake again, I feed the dogs who, again, run to her door after eating. I lift them to her bed. “Go for it,” I tell them. They settle in, even though her body isn’t there for them to lean against. They lick her sheets, a behavior I find disgusting, but it is one she sometimes lets them do, and now I do, too. I tell myself that we all need our comforts, and I can wash them before she returns.
I go to my computer and cast lines in rivers of words, the most constant comfort I’ve ever known.
Her absence is still a presence, but I know it won’t always be so. Or, it will, but not in the same way. I have so rarely had second chances, and I know that there’s no do-over for the months we’ve shared since May. I also know that, likely, we couldn’t have lived them any other way than we have. We are who we are, each of us; ours is not a pack of easy animals. When she returns, she will be in quarantine, and then I will be returning to work. Her visa could come through at any time now, and then she’ll be gone again. She’ll be back in 10 days, but it won’t be the same. (It is never the same; isn’t every good-bye a tiny death, a rehearsal for the big show we never want to perform?)
But: The cards are flattened now, and re-building is necessity, not choice. When she comes back, I won’t give any of what I’ve still got away to the future. I’ll heed my own words to that mom at the river. When she goes again, I want to hurt for the right reasons.