When asked about our most vivid memories, we often recall a first kiss, wedding day or birth of a child. Not me. For much of my life my sharpest memories centered not on unions and beginnings but on separations and endings.
I come by this peculiarity honestly. My parents—a rootless couple in search of better opportunities—thought nothing of moving their only child across the state. By the time I entered sixth grade, I’d lived in five different places and had lost touch with more friends than many adults make in a lifetime. In those pre-Internet days, when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, “goodbye” meant “The End.”
To avoid painful goodbyes I became skilled at the cut-and-dried ending, so much so that the last goodbye of my childhood didn’t hurt at all. When my parents drove me to college for the start of freshman year, the two-hour ride was a silent one. I kept ruminating over the excessive emotion my parents would display when they departed, especially my mother’s python hug and accompanying wail, “I love you, I love you I love you!”
So to forestall events, I got into a fight with them on the back terrace of the president’s mansion at a reception where families were expected to exchange tearful but decorous goodbyes. I can’t recall how it started, but I do remember my ungraceful exit; I took a running leap over a low stone wall as my mother shrieked, “I’m glad I don’t have to put up with you anymore!”
I vowed things would be different for my own kids. Later, when the man I married became a partner in a well-established local business, I secretly celebrated what that meant. From their first ride on the kindergarten bus to the final stroll across the stage in cap and gown, our daughters would never be uprooted by a family move.
Instead, they eagerly uprooted themselves. For college, Jaye chose to go to Chicago and only applied to one school. Em, two years younger, visited seven campuses from Cleveland to Manhattan.
Jaye’s college send-off was a four-day cross-country family affair. We rented a van for the 12-hour drive and moved her into an 18-story downtown Chicago skyscraper of a dorm housing students from four different colleges. Her 15th-floor room, sleek with IKEA furniture and closet built-ins, was in the shadow of the Sears Tower. Since a housing mistake paired her with a sophomore who arrived a week later and dropped out within the month, Jaye was essentially alone. That was hard for me to swallow.
The actual goodbye took place in our hotel room as she stopped by on her way to an orientation event. Smiles, hugs and best wishes didn’t feel like enough so I left my husband and Em in the room, and followed Jaye down to the lobby and onto the street. As we stood at the corner waiting for the light to change, she wrapped her arms around me. “Bye, Mom,” she said. “Don’t be sad. I’ll be all right. Don’t worry about me. We’ll see each other soon.” She ran across the street, turned at the opposite corner and waved as a tide of pedestrians swept her out of sight.
Em’s departure was a cakewalk in comparison. Her college was an hour away and the move took only four hours out of my day. (She and I did it alone as my husband was taking Jaye back to Chicago.) Em’s dorm was a mere two stories high and her basement housing assignment did not offer a room with a view unless you count dirt, sky and the lower third of a chain link fence. Her furniture was standard-issue brown metal and a big locker stood in for a closet.
Like me, Em tends to be low-key about farewells. We awkwardly embraced in the doorway of her room as she whispered, “Give me a real hug, Mom.” Over her shoulder I saw a mother and daughter clinging to each other and weeping. I felt as wooden as one chess piece knocking against another on an adjoining square. I let go and mumbled, “I love you. Bye.”
I drove off in my car, frozen solid despite the warm day. If dropping her off at college was so easy, why did I feel so bad?
My tears thawed once I walked into my dark, empty house. My babies were gone. I was alone. Weeping, I dropped to the kitchen floor, sadder than I’d ever been in a lifetime of dislocations and goodbyes.
But once I was all cried out I came to a realization. This goodbye didn’t signal the end. It was only a chapter break in our lives. The story would go on.
And it did. Jaye stepping off a plane Christmas Eve dressed like an elf in a Santa cap and holiday sweater; Em coming up the front walk on a cool spring evening with flowers for me—these are the hellos that have since picked up where the goodbyes left off.
Now that I know the story will continue, I can say goodbye properly. Now when I hug my daughters goodbye, I’m not afraid to squeeze—or cry. They’re strong. They can take it. So can I.
Linda Lowen is a freelance writer for MSN.com and the New York Times Company, where she writes and edits the Women’s Issues site at About.com. She lives in Syracuse with her husband, two daughters, who come and go, and one baby still at home—her mini-schnauzer, Buddy. Maggie Lamond Simone is on vacation.
Photo above: © Diego Vito Cervo | Dreamstime.com