November 19th, 2008
When she was born, something happened to my heart. It expanded beyond its secluded place in my chest, and became a fast growing vine that wrapped itself around her and lifted us both toward the sun. I knew, from the moment I held her in my arms, that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep her safe and happy.
I whispered love into her tiny infant ears, mother-speak that promised to nurture her potential, and guide her childhood journey gently. I drew her, in my minds eye, at five, ten, twenty, and in every imagined picture she was beaming, healthy, and full of confidence. A child of my own, whose young experiences would be as different from mine as possible. I was certain I could navigate the uncharted territory of security and happiness based on strong desire, and the protective instinct my own mother lacked but that I always had in abundance.
Of course, being something of a neophyte to the adult world, I failed in some ways. Finances were always precarious, and there were too many moves, across too many different states and cities, chasing better opportunities. There were often seven day work weeks and twelve hour days, leaving time together short and precious. There were struggles and disasters, and not nearly enough triumphs to lessen the impact.
Yet I look at my 26 year-old daughter now, and know that I have excelled. The daughter of my imagination is now my daughter in reality. She is bright, vivacious, plugged-in and beautifully connected, with a compassionate heart, and a rational-imaginative mind. When Elisabeth loves, she loves deeply and intelligently. She has the kind of inner strength that seeks peace, but that will confidently enter the ring of battle when necessary. She’s funny, quick-witted, and laughs easily.
And she’s my best friend. Perhaps the only friend I’ve ever had that knows me inside-out, accepts me unconditionally, and whose love and support I can rely on day after day, decade after decade.
I had a hard time when Elisabeth left home. For eighteen years, she had been my anchor, and when she was gone I felt strangely, disconcertingly untethered. I wasn’t expecting that, or any part of the empty nest syndrome. The benefit of having a child at nineteen, I thought, was that I would only be 37 when she became a legal adult. Thirty-seven is young! I imagined the start of a second life –- a life where the need for the best-paying jobs became less important than doing the type of work that made me happiest — where I would have more time to write, and take on the unpleasant but necessary task of submitting work for publication. If I wanted to, I could date a lot of unsavory but interesting people, stay up late, fill the cupboards with junk food, and not worry about the kind of behavior I was modeling. I could walk around the house naked, call in sick just because the sun was shining, and make a lunch out of margaritas.
The problem with all of those grand plans was that outside of writing, I had outgrown much of what I once thought would be fun. My definition of fun had changed in 18 years of parenting. Fun was being curled up on a couch with a pajama-clad kid, watching the movie Annie for the 105th time, and singing all the songs in our off-key but enthusiastic fashion. Fun was going out shopping for the perfect first date outfit, or enjoying a lazy “girl’s day” of movies, lunches, pampering, and togetherness.
In January, there will be a new chapter in my daughter’s life. She’s marrying a man she loves, and who loves her almost as deeply as I do – I could not ask for more. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to cry at the wedding since it’s in Mexico and beyond my means right now, but I think it’s more than likely that I’ll spend much of the reception in Minnesota bawling like the displaced but incredibly proud and happy parent that I am.
It’s been almost nine years since my daughter left home, and the feeling of being untethered remains. Sometimes it’s a freeing feeling, but at other times it just feels like I’m drifting, with nowhere for my heart to really land.