The TSA attendant hands my children back their boarding passes and before they shuffle over and start to remove their belts and shoes, they look back and wave. “It’s OK,” my teenage son mouths through the glass as his college-aged sister blows a kiss and offers a smile. “They’ll be fine,” my husband says as he takes my hand. I press my fingertips to my eyelids and realize it isn’t our kids I’m worried about. It’s me. Our son and daughter are leaving the family vacation early, as we had planned it, while my husband and I stay on for another week at the rental cottage up in Maine. The kids are old enough to manage on their own back home; old enough to have anticipated in advance that one week with the whole family would be just the right amount of time.
As we head toward the lone escalator in the Bangor airport, I find myself watching people saying their farewells on the threadbare carpet. I see a somber young man in desert camouflage kiss his girlfriend goodbye. A gangly preteen twirls a cheerleader’s baton with pink plastic ribbons on the ends and calls for her daddy to watch one more time before he steps beyond the stanchion. A young mother helps her father pry his grandson off his leg. The toddler cries and the mother tells him they’ll visit again at Christmas, no doubt a vague eternity to the boy. How, I wonder, do people manage the everyday heartache of leaving?
I remember my father idling in our station wagon in front of Logan airport as my mother and I hugged goodbye on the sidewalk. In my twenties, I was leaving again, far too soon, she said. She brushed back a few tears and complained that they never saw enough of me anymore. I felt a surge of longing as I pressed up against her. Some part of me ached at the thought of saying goodbye to my childhood, but then I pulled myself free. Without pause, I turned and hurried into my new, young life.
My husband and I walk out into a drizzly Maine morning. Almost immediately, the kids call and say their flight’s been delayed. We decide to kill time near the airport: before we drive the hour and a half back to our rental house on the coast, we want to be certain that they are safely on their way. The rain comes in great sheets and we call the airline many times over the next six hours, first to learn about the grounded plane’s mechanical failures, and then about weather delays up and down the East Coast.
We also exchange texts with our children who sit waiting at their gate. They watch movies on their computers and read from their summer book lists. Each time we contact them, they tell us the latest updates, that they’re doing all right. They eat vending-machine snacks and manage. They’re more independent now, with all the glamour that entails. Despite the inconvenience, I sense they’re relishing their freedom. So long as the flight isn’t cancelled altogether, they’ll be fine. The last thing they want is to return with us for another night. We all agree it was a great vacation together, but the kids have places to go now. They’re ready to be on their way.
Years ago, when I had turned from my mother and dashed into Logan, I couldn’t bear the sight of her missing me before I’d even gone. I didn’t yet grasp what she must have already sensed: that even though we would continue to see each other regularly for visits and vacations, this was an ending. I hated the pained look in her eyes and so it seemed best to leave quickly and without a fuss. Back then, with no cell phones, I couldn’t send a text to reassure her that I’d made it to my destination. I might not even have called home for several days. The break was clean and allowed us to experience it separately, and alone. I understand now, it must have been miserable for her.
As the rain continues and we wait for our children to take off, the pain I had blithely tried to avoid back then revisits me full force. My children are departing and my parents are gone now, too. My father died five years ago, but this is our first summer trip to Maine since my mother’s death a half a year ago. As we ate lobster, took invigorating hikes and viewed glorious sunsets from rocky shores, I had a searing urge to tell her all about it. As an adult and a parent myself, I had called her often, especially from wherever we traveled, to reassure her that we had made it and were having a good time. Our kids stranded in airport limbo would definitely have been worthy of a phone call mention. My mother found pleasure in our happiness, or felt concern for our concerns, even when we were far from her. Now, with my own children poised to leave, I appreciate her generous, long-distance attention more than ever. I also understand that she had had little choice. She had to learn to love me from afar.
With her gone, I’m beginning to fathom that I must learn to love her from the greatest distance of all. I notice that without her, and without the kids, I feel rudderless. I hadn’t realized that the ropes that tied me to my mother also helped me set sail in the first place. Because I counted on her to be my pole star, I came and went with some ease.
In our last phone call on New Year’s Day, I told her about the special dinner we’d had with friends the night before. She seemed distracted, even disinterested. I asked if she was feeling tired. “Oh, yes,” she said, “very tired.” Before I could inquire further, she added, “I have to go now.” We said we loved each other as we always did, and then said our goodbyes. When I hung up the phone, I told my husband that something was wrong. My mother had said, “I have to go now,” as if someone on her end of the line was insisting on it. Twelve hours later she died.
The sorrow of departure is woven into family love, although I had wanted to avoid feeling it for as long as possible. My children don’t experience it the way I do, but perhaps they will someday with their own children. I hope to keep them tethered to me, although with a rope that will necessarily stretch longer and grow finer with each next step they take.
Their flight finally leaves Bangor after dark. Later that night, they text and tell us that they made it home. I reply cheerfully, “Great. Have a good time!” From this distance, it’s the only choice I have.
"Departures" first appeared in Brain, Child on November 4, 2013. You can see it with a different photo of my children at: http://www.brainchildmag.com/2013/11/departures/