I wrote the following column in August 2001 just before my oldest daughter, who is now 23, went to college in a town three hours east of Clarion. I was organizing my portfolio yesterday when I came across it and after I read it again, I realized how little my feelings have changed in 5½ years. I’m still wondering what I want to do when I grow up, I still worry about my children, even though they are adults and living on their own, and I still look upon life with a mix of skeptisicm and optimism. I guess the more things change the more they truly do stay the same.
I can tell you what a biting north wind feels like when you stand in the middle of a frozen lake, and how it finds your skin through every gap of your layers of coats and clothing.
I can tell you what it feels like to ride a horse, bareback, down a dusty country road, the inside of your thighs sweating against the horse’s still-shedding winter coat and your feet bouncing against his sides.
I can tell you how soft the top of a baby’s head feels against your cheek and how the beating of her heart pulsates at the soft spot just above her forehead.
But until you stand on a frozen lake or grab the mane and swing yourself up on the back of a horse or pick up a baby and hold her against your cheek, it’s all just a picture in your mind.
The experience of my oldest daughter leaving home and going to college was all just a picture in my mind until last week. This summer I stared into space a lot, zoned out of conversations, and cried a little more than usual.
I talked to parents who had a child grow up and move away because I wanted to know in advance what I would feel when I said goodbye to her. But of course, like standing freezing on a lake or riding a horse on a warm spring day, I couldn’t know what it felt like until I did it.
After I said goodbye to her at her dorm, I can tell you that goodbye was a lot of things I wasn’t expecting. I expected to cry, but I didn’t, not until a few hours later when I got home and I was alone. I thought I’d be the last parent on campus, but I left before her roommate moved in. I really thought the emptiness I felt for a few days after she left would stick around until at least Thanksgiving, but even that has waned a bit.
I felt pride as I watched my daughter fade into the crowd of people walking into the dorm. I was proud of myself for having raised such a thoughtful and inquisitive girl. I was proud of her for making the decisions it took to get her to a school outside of her hometown and for trusting herself to let go.
I didn’t expect to think about myself and my future as much as I am. For 18 years, all of my adult life, I’ve been raising children. Sure, I went to college, worked, and met a lot of interesting people over the years, but everything I do, everywhere I go, every decision I make as an adult impacts my children. But that will all change soon. Now that one of the girls is an adult and the other one is close to it, I’ve been asking myself what do I want to be when I grow up? My options are more limited now than when I was 18, but then, I never was that serious about being an astronaut.
I’ll be 39 when the last one leaves the nest, an age when many of my friends are just starting their families. I don’t know what that will feel like or what my life will be like then, but sometimes I feel like I’m a senior in high school again, with all the world out there for me to conquer.
I want to be Ellen Goodman and Anna Quindlen, Molly Ivins and Leonard Pitts. Maybe I’ll write a novel and be on Oprah. I could run for congress and make a law banning bagpipes (at least within two miles of me).
When I was 25 I thought of the day my children would be grown and I decided I’d go to Jamaica for a month. Now I’m thinking Europe. I might even decide to live in England in a cottage on the moors, just me, my dogs and the Brontes.
I feel young, but I know the years have battered me a bit. I feel invincible, but I know I can fall. I feel safe here in Clarion, but I know one day I’ll leave.
I don’t know what the experiences of tomorrow or next week or next year will feel like, but until I’m there myself I can only anticipate. But I hope I will feel it like the cold wind, like a bareback ride, like a baby’s soft head, and like saying goodbye to people I love. The real thing is almost always better than the anticipation.