I said goodbye to my daughter this morning.
She is four. I have never lived with her father: figuring out how to be parents as a team when we never really were a team had been a long road; for the time being, it is relatively harmonious.
She will be gone for two weeks. They are flying to Hawaii, then getting on a Norwegian cruise line, to float around in the islands. Priveleged child, her auntie bought her a new wardrobe for this trip. (Eek!)
I've never been to Hawaii. Tessie has been on airplanes more in the four years since she was born than I had until well into my 20s. Her first sail at nine days old, her first airplane ride, at twelve. Days. Old. We flew from Port Townsend up to San Juan Island, just for the day, her, her dad, me, still recovering from labor, and my parents. Although we didn't know it at that point, my mother in the early stages of dying of cancer. It was an idyllic day, walking from the tiny airport into the town of San Juan, checking out the shop and the islanders, who have remarkably the same kind of mein as Port Townsenders, tending toward the fuzzy, mossy, besweatered, bearded and long-haired.
This saying goodbye. Goodbye for me, is a hard thing to say. For a moment the goodbye echoes - how can I know, saying goodbye is really for only two weeks? It was still dark, in the early morning, when I walked outside, carrying her, to tuck her into the car seat to say goodbye. And becuase it was dark, I was aware of the potential demons there, waiting, perhaps to pounce on me after they left. Visions of the plane crashing. Her father neglecting her, falling, down, off the edge of the boat, breathing water in. I know these imaginings are just that, imaginings, so I get a comforting book and a cup of tea to chase the demons out of my mind until the sun comes up, when they will not be able to "get" me.
But now that the sun is up, I'm aware of this dull ache, not so much sadness as the feeling of having lost a limb - of something that is so close to being a part of me that I take it for granted, until it's not there any more. The closest parallel feeling I can describe to this was when I left my husband. When I did, it wasn't so much the conciousness of being apart, that was my choice. It was the almost subconcious awareness of something missing; the common vocabulary, memory, experience, the reflection of all the time shared back from someone else that is suddenly, palpably absent. I still also feel this about my mother, who at certain time has a presence more palpable in its absence, that it sometimes was when she was alive. Her art lines my walls; her gifts occupy every niche on my shelves; her life, every niche in my mind. Tessie starts to replace the occupation of these niches....
Being a parent is learning to live with an intensity of emotion that is unfamiliar. This small human, who I jokingly named imp/buddha here, has been living up to her nickname. She can drive me to pinnacles of joy, tears of laughter, and tears of rage and defeat all in the same day. I recognise our hideous inadequacy, when faced with the realization that someone is so dependent, that their character is shaped by our hand, our words, our own behavior and very soul. This knowledge would probably paralyze anyone who came into it with full awareness of what they are getting into, but luckily, I doubt that anyone ever does. Loving someone as a parent is loving generously by default. Children are fundamentally selfish. They never know the struggles, the sacrifices, the doubts, that a parent goes through; then they walk away and say, "Bye, mom, I'm going off to college, see you in a year!" without ever realizing that they have walked away with a significant chunk of your soul, and all, all of your heart. If you try to turn a child to your own will to make them into someone for yourself rather than for their own self, my strong suspicion is you will be hoist to your own petard. The more you wrap them up and try to keep them close, the more they will struggle, fight their bonds, try to get away from you.
Conversly, the only way to keep them close is to let them go. My parents were good at this: both my sister and I went off on our merry way, and eventually came to know our parents as friends and colleagues, rather than people to whom we owed duty and who had expectations of us. I think I was singularly lucky in having this, but I never appreciated the challenge it provokes.
Tessie starts kindergarten next fall; in the Bay area the choice of, and agonizing over, applying for kindergarten seems to cause almost as much angst as applying for college causes parents in more civilized places. People fight, struggle, schmooze, discuss the pros and cons of various schools and educational approaches. Yesterday we visited a Waldorf kindergarten. I fell in love with this place; in a way it is a microcosm of what I imagine when I talk about Everything, Kansas. The kids are encouraged to grow amazingly as whole people, to learn control of their bodies, their emotions, and their minds. The teachers talk about how they help the children blossom - who is this person, and how can we support them in becoming themselves? A high school senior is there speaking; he is incredibly articulate, talking about being a "global citizen", and being in control of his own learning. I have a hard time imagining a public school student talk like this in front of 60 people; I certainly couldn't at that age.
At one point I leaned over to my housemate, and said the hell with the kids, I want to go to kindergarten here. "The children dance, sing, hear poetry, paint, every day". Can I please spend MY day like this? And your child could too, to the tune of around twelve thousand dollars a year.
I look around the room. There is one other couple who's child is mixed race: mom is asian american, dad is white. Everyone else in the room is white, whiter, whitest....WASPS. I can hazard a guess that everyone in the room is also college educated, probably professional, almost all two parent families (with the exception of my single-mom housemate and me) northern european ancestry. So much for diversity. Waldorf education has an underlayment of privelege, of christianity, of entitlement, that I find off-putting. I long for this for Tessie...so clean, so safe, so touchy-feely, and yet it also scares me. With this choice, will I also take her away from a sense of the diversity, the incredible variation, the great unwashed-ness of human kind? Probably. Will she end up in this lily-white classroom, and come home one day, crying about the fact that she is "different"? Probably. Is there anything I can do to protect her from it? Probably not. She is a future "woman of color"; I am not. I fundamentally cannot share her experience. So I agonize over how to help her, how to take the rough and scraping edges of the world off as much as possible, knowing she will still be hurt by the sharpnesses I don't see, don't anticipate.
There is really not a specific point to this rambling: only the observation of my own experience as a parent, loving my child, wanting what is best and easy for her, dreading what will be hard. Saying a temporary goodbye like this, makes me pause a moment on the bigger goodbyes that are yet to come, inevitably. I dislike saying goodbye; friends notice that I have a tendency to disappear instead of saying elaborate goodbyes; perhaps this is why. Within each temporary goodbye is encapulated the bigger goodbyes...which I never, ever, want to have to say.