First you hold a child, years later you let go, then you weep sweet tears

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

It was near dawn, but still dark outside when the phone rang in the kitchen. Jarred awake, I lay in bed trying to process the unfamiliar timing of the call. A family emergency? No, that didn't seem right. A problem with the school carpool? No, it was too early for that.

Oh, of course: It was the taxi driver who had pulled up outside, phoning to let the traveler know that her ride to the airport had arrived. In her last few days before leaving for university, our eldest was taking a weekend jaunt to see a friend who had already gone to college.

Lying there in the dimness, I smiled to think of her, so grown-up, slipping quietly out of the house and into the cab and off to catch a plane by herself. I pictured her sitting inside the taxi, chatting with the driver as the sky lightened around them on the road.

There was something oddly familiar about the scene, a feeling of inverted deja vu. It brought with it a curious pressure on my chest, like a weight of tears.

An image suddenly came into my mind of another airport-bound taxi that had carried a young woman in the charcoal hours before dawn. She too had slipped out of the house as quietly as possible. Before leaving, she had paused for a moment outside a closed door.

Behind the door lay her sleeping firstborn, a daughter perhaps a year old. The woman had been tempted to go in and kiss the child before she left, to breathe in her fragrance one more time, but it seemed better to forebear. She didn't want to wake or upset the girl. Anyway, she'd only be gone on a reporting trip for a few days; better to let the child sleep. So she did, softly letting herself out into the cool London gloom and climbing into the waiting cab.

Under the bedclothes, I smiled at the memory of how I'd discovered that, in dressing in the dark, I'd accidentally put on acid blue tights that clashed horribly with my clothes. I was halfway to Heathrow, too late to turn back, and none of the airport shops would be open at that hour. I'd have to fly to Germany with ludicrous legs.

I was still smiling when, without warning, my face crumpled so violently that it actually hurt. Tears began pouring down my face. Oh, heavens, I could remember that morning so distinctly! It was as though a rip had opened in time, and I could -- almost, almost -- reach back 17 years. I could put my hand on the doorknob and do things differently. I could hold that rosy infant in my arms again --

But of course, I couldn't. No one can. The rosy infant is now taller than I am. Now I was the one left behind, and she was the one going off on the exciting predawn journey. The circularity of this, and the astonishing speed with which those 17 years seem now to have shot by, is both completely comprehensible and yet utterly mysterious.

This is what it is to be a parent, I know: You get to hold them, and then you have to let them go. It's an honor and a privilege and a blessing. And sometimes it makes you blub.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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