I moved you into your dorm room yesterday. You are only 9, and it’s only for a week, your first sleep-away summer camp on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. I pinned smiling family pictures to the bulletin board above your desk area while you cavorted with your friend, tumbling over the bed I had just so carefully made, tucking in sheet corners snug and smooth so that they would hold you when I could not. So that when, if, there is a moment this week when everything gets complicated and messy and you don’t know how to sort your way through it on your own, at least your sheets, carefully smoothed by my love, will be in neat order.
You have been looking forward to this week for the last six months. We honestly weren’t sure, you and I, if this was a good idea. You are only 9, after all. The camp had to make a special exception for you since usually all incoming 5th graders are already 10.
“Momma,” you’d whisper as I tucked you into bed, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug, “what happens if I have a bad dream?”
“What happens if I need a snuggle to go to sleep?”
“What if I can’t do it?”
I smoothed your fears out one by one, reminding you of your own power, your own strength, reminding you that there are always other adults around who will care for you, reminding you that coming home was always an option, however last-ditch it may be.
We invited your closest friend to join you, and once she said yes, your fears were erased with the magic of friendship and companionship and daydreams of shared moments and laughter. From that moment on, you were dashing ahead in your mind to this week on the shores of the lake, this week of projects and creativity and skits and songs and independence and bedtime whispers after lights out.
As if in response to the fervor of your anticipation, the interim months sped by in a blur of spring sports and end of school and summer reading and summer travel and swim team and hiking and game nights and sleepovers and 150 bedtime tuck-ins, roughly speaking of course. One hundred and fifty moments of sitting together and listing out the things we are grateful for. One hundred and fifty songs. One hundred and fifty chances to smooth your blankets around you and make you feel warm and secure. Gone in the blink of an eye.
I moved you into your dorm room yesterday, and while I pinned pictures and smoothed sheets, you cavorted and we weren’t alone. There was no breath, no pause in the pace of this freight-train life, no loss of forward momentum. I needed this moment where I could whisper “pause” like a superpower and everyone and everything around us would freeze in place, leaving us to touch foreheads and look into each other’s eyes and talk about what you would do if you have a bad dream.
There were other parents in that tiny room, moving their girls in too, and I felt silly trying to take pictures, trying to catch moments, trying to pause time.
I should have known that our time to pause was long ago.
I should have known our time to touch foreheads and gaze into eyes and talk about love was those twelve weeks I stayed home from work with you, when I walked around our neighborhood pushing your stroller, making up songs to sing because I couldn’t stand the silence.
Our time was all those evenings when your tiny body fit into the curve of my lap, both of us snuggled into the giant purple chair, a stack of books on hand before we could dream about turning off the lamp.
Our time was in those minutes that seemed to stretch forever, you laying in bed with your mind and lips full of questions about life. You were only three when you asked me how I knew this wasn’t all some kind of dream we would wake up from one day. I tried to give the moment the credit it deserved, but I think back on all those nights my mind was only on the promise of the alluring quiet just beyond the reach of lights out.
I should have known. I should have begun our pause nine years ago. I should have breathed you in and told you everything would be amazing and you would be amazing back when I had the chance. I should have felt the ghosts of other parents moving other kids into your dorm room back when I held you, your age still counted in hours, while you slept. I should have taken our moment together then.
Of course I did. We touched foreheads and eye gazed and spoke of love at every age, at every season, at every time of day. But those moments were smug and naïve, entitled, the moments of a young mother who thinks she will always be able to pause and connect anytime she wants, a parent who doesn’t yet know that the world hurtles forward and moments of presence don’t always come.
When we left, you were standing at the door of your dorm building, just tall enough to see through the bottom edge of the glass. How can I leave you behind when you are still so small? Your eyes watched our every move, wide, hesitant, terrified. Maybe that’s what bravery looks like.
I wonder if my eyes looked the same to you, in that moment our gaze locked before we drove away.