Bye-bye, Baby

When my first-born, Ciara, was four I enrolled her in a half day program at a local Montessori school. I was a Montessori teacher (taking a year or two out for reproductive purposes) so it made sense that I would want her to reap the Montessori benefits. I prepped Ciara for that first day; we toured the school, bought the snacks, I talked it up, but on the day she was due to start, about ten minutes into the new morning routine, she asked me to sit on the couch with her. “I’m not ready”, she said. “Me neither”, I replied, and that was that. Ciara never made it to preschool.

She was reading, and social and doing just fine without preschool, I told myself, but there was no reasonable way to avoid kindergarten. We toured the school, we bought the backpack, we talked it up, we met the teacher, and on one warm August morning, with her three year old sister on one hand, and her soon to be baby brother kicking around my innards, my husband, Tom, and I walked our little Ciara into Blankner K-8 to begin her educational journey.

She was ready then. I still wasn’t. I held it together in the school, encouraged by her total excitement and absolute confidence. I held it together in the car, not wanting to upset little Aoife. But, when I got to the bathroom at home, I took a look at my sorry self in the mirror and started to bawl. Oh, how I wept. I wept for Ireland. I wept for the “loss” of my child. I wept for the “loss” of Aoife and (unborn baby) Tomas’s time with their big sister. I wept for the books we wouldn’t read together, the Dragon Tales episodes that would go unwatched, the playground trips we’d miss. I wept for the loss of control. I wept the ugly weep, with snot and slime and deep, reverberating sobs. After about thirty minutes, with my husband knocking on the door to check if I might ever come out, I looked at my red, swollen face, hair “glued” haphazardly  across it, and knew I had to get myself together. Life would go on. We would adjust. She’d be back at 2:45 PM, after all.

Jump forward in time 13 years. The way I just said that is kind of the way it was –  a short jump. Ciara, now 18, had finished her elementary and secondary education. She had played a blinder (despite the deprivation of preschool). She was class president all four years of high school. She joined soccer and swim teams, she soared academically, but more than all that she was a very decent and kind human being. Tom and I had one end goal when we decided to have children; to raise people whose company we would enjoy as adults, and we knocked it out of the park with Ciara. But now, having raised a person we really liked, came the cruel irony of college.

In America, college age kids have a tendency to move away, far away, for college. Back in my day you took the bus to UCC (University College Cork) or the Tech, and were back home in time for the dinner. Parents generally had to beg their children to move out at some point in their twenties. Despite a concerted effort on my part to extol the merits of online college (which could be comfortably attended from the kitchen counter) our American girl had indeed set her sights very far away. Indulgently we drove her to visit universities as much  as ten hours away, but heaved deep, deep sighs of relief when she accepted an offer from the University of Florida, a mere one hundred and twelve miles from home.

Once the decision was made I entered a long and lovely period of denial. I was finishing up my Master’s degree, starting a new job and we were planning a big celebratory European trip to mark multiple family milestones; it was easy to put the college thing on the long finger. A few weeks out from move in day and Ciara told me about moms of her friends who were already openly weeping at any mention of the upcoming nest departures. I was cool as a breeze (though I did find myself humming the Beatles, She’s Leaving Home, at odd times).

The weekend before she left, I went dorm room shopping with her and, though I acknowledged on some strange level, that something was about to change, I still managed to remain aloof. On the one hand I was proud of myself for being able to put her excitement above my potential grief, but on the other I thought it was odd that I was feeling so detached. I speculated that maybe my experience as an emigrant helped me put it all in perspective – she wasn’t leaving us to cross an ocean, after all. That was probably it.

I got through packing and the pile of boxes by the front door feeling calm. My sister came by on the morning of moving day to say her goodbyes. She had confessed to being weepy for days at the prospect of Ciara’s departure, and I had her well warned to “behave”. No sooner had she sat with her cup of tea, across the kitchen island from me, than she sighed deeply, “I remember when she was just born”. Tears stung my eyes, and my heart actually hurt. I shook my head, “Oh, no. We are not doing that, Audrey. No, no, no!” But, by the time the “last” hug was given in the driveway, my sister’s sorrows had me beginning to really feel my own. But I kept it together on the drive up there, thankful that Aoife had come with us in place of Tom, who had to work. I did find myself glancing sideways in the car a lot to see the face in the passenger seat, beginning to realize I wouldn’t be seeing it so much anymore.

Arriving at UF we got elbows deep in the move in process; lugging and hefting in 98 degrees. One elevator trip per family was the rule and with an entire van load of boxes and bags, that meant quite a few lumbering, sweaty stair climbs. Once everything was in the dorm room we set about the fun decorating stuff; hanging pictures and mirrors and setting up the extra long twin bed to make it feel like home. Finally came unpacking the clothes. This is when I really began to feel it; we were going to soon be at the part where we left her. As each bag got unpacked my dread grew. I slowed my unpacking pace, tried to remain upbeat, but my voice was cracking, there were deep sighs, and I know she caught my watery eyes a few times. She started to get a little less excited too, realizing soon she’d be on her own. Thankfully, she had a Rush Week orientation to attend at 7 PM, which meant we ran out of time to linger at an emotional goodbye. I drove her to Whatever Hall, hugged her hard and said goodbye. Yes, crying a bit at this point. As we drove away, I watched her in the rear view mirror walking off into her future without me.

The two hour drive home was not as awful as it might have been. Aoife (for once not having to call shotgun) snoozed and I listened to News Radio to stop my thoughts from wandering. I was good, I told myself. She’d be good. It would all be fine. Exhausted I turned onto our street, feeling pretty darn proud of my levels of stoicism throughout the day, but then I saw it – her car. Her car parked outside our house. Our house that no longer had her in it. That was it; the floodgates opened and I was transported back to that first day of kindergarten – a big snotty, sobby mess, and this time she was not going to be home at 2:45 PM.

The sobbing lasted for about two hours on and off that night, and there has been intermittent sobbing since. Don’t tell me how great it’s going to be – I know. No need to remind me that she has entered the best days of her life – I get it. No one is more delighted for her or proud of her than me. And her leaving – we did that – we explicitly raised her to leave; it was all part of the plan. But just for now I’m indulging my sadness about losing the company of one of the people I love the very most from my daily life. I’m lamenting not knowing how she’s feeling throughout each day, what’s she’s eaten, what she’s done, where she’s going. I’m missing the sound of her laugh from the bedroom, her random hugs, her funny stories. And I know that life will go on. I  know that I will adjust. But I also know that it won’t be anytime soon.

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9 thoughts on “Bye-bye, Baby

  1. We’ll be moving our oldest to UF in just a few days and like you, I was doing a pretty good job of not being overly emotional and didn’t cry at all. Until last weekend. 🙂 Now I am just trying not to think about moving day…and the drive back home. Your last paragraph captures my feelings pretty well. Thanks for sharing this.

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  2. It is so good to write about these things! I have great sympathy – I went through the same thing when I lived in Spain and left my daughter on her first day at pre-school. I sat on a bench near the school and howled and howled. I felt so guilty.

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  3. It is probably only now that you fully appreciate what a loss your emigration was for your parents. There is no way to fully prepare for this experience …. stay positive

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  4. Hi Cathy. Lovely writing. I have a few years before my two will be off to University but I am already dreading it. I am living in San Francisco now so I hope they go to school here when the time comes!

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  5. This has really helped me to prepare for my son’s departure next week! The rest of my family think I’m overreacting but I can’t stop crying at the thought of him leaving. I had hoped he would go to UCC and be back on time for tea but he’s off to the UK. Although he is ready to start his new life I’m not!

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    • You’ll get through it Fiona. It’s tough as ovaries but it gets ever slightly less awful as the weeks go by. The trick is to never let them know how much it hurts (like, don’t publish an article on the subject in the Irish Times!).

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