By Debbie Tanthorey Allen
The 29th day of September, in the Year of Our Lord 2013—a milestone.
It jars me awake this particular morning, my first thought, “Today she leaves.” I’ve done this child-leaving-home thing before, twice. I can do it again. This time is different, though. Leah is the last to go.
The positive? I won’t ever have to do this again. The negative? I won’t ever have to do this again. Sigh. I get out of bed, slip into my a.m. day-off rigamarole; she sleeps. Just knowing she’s in there—there is comfort in that. It ends today. Breathe. I’m conscious of my breath the entire day; just keep inhaling, exhaling, Debbie; you’ll get through this. “Just keep swimming”—I’m an experienced mom. I can quote from three decades of kids’ movies.
I stall taking a shower so as not to disturb her since the bathroom borders her room. I won’t have to do that again, mentally mark it down, a positive. There are no special plans today, puttering around the house, doing what needs to be done, like any other Sunday.
Hanging out laundry is a satisfying, time-consuming distraction. It is soothingly silent outside, a heaviness in the fall air. Lifting wet clothes from the basket, I shake out the wrinkles with a snap. Pinning clothes to the line, I look up to admire the September sky. This is the sky on the day she goes, a vivid, azure hue with cotton-ball clouds, must remember that. The trees in the woods bordering our lawn are just beginning to turn. Leaves look less green, slightly tired, nowhere near being brilliant, but they’ll get there. Just like me? Inhale deeply. This is the day.
When Leah does get out bed, she’s excited. Today is the day! She plops suitcases onto her bed. I hear them unzip, and flinch. Drifting to her door, I lean on the jamb and ask, “You pack a jacket?” Pleased with herself, she shows me her neatly written list of what to take. She reads it out loud. I marvel at her organization. She gets that from me. I force a weak smile. My insides are swirling with emotion. In my mind’s eye, I picture grabbing her, hugging her for hours, crying and being sloppy about it. I won’t do that to her. Instead, she gets a weak grin, my nod of approval. I glance around the room, imagining it clean of makeup-stained puffs, all her debris. Did I chuckle out loud? Not hearing, “Don’t go in my room, Mom!” No more debates about the virtues of tidy spaces between her and me…a positive.
Sixteen years ago, this was her older sister’s room. Jess lived here only a year after we moved in 1996. This, the place where toddler Leah drew on herself and her sister’s new bedroom furniture with neon pink lipstick. This the spot, in 1997, where Jessica quietly, apprehensively broke the news to me that I was about to become a grandmother. I still hear it echoing in the canyons of my mind, “Mom, we have to talk.” This room is crammed with memories. I dread it being silent.
Weekend chores call me. I steal away, head to the basement to pull another load out of the washer. Luckily, I didn’t blindly head down the stairs. There in the middle of my path, lying on the risers, a large plastic storage bag in which the luggage had been kept. One step on that, would have been a bumpy, breaking bones, slip-n-slide straight to the basement floor. Instead, I snatch it up, eyes rolling, pull it out of my way. Never having to nag her again about putting stuff away…a positive.
Leah showers, but not before she growls that we probably didn’t leave any hot water for her. Won’t hear that again…a positive. Juggling laundry and showers so as not to use all the hot water and invoke her wrath, no more. The corners of my mouth creep up.
She flops down on the couch beside me; did we watch TV together one last time? I don’t remember, trying too hard not to cry. Memorizing the day was harder than I thought. Soon Leah’s flitting between her room and the bathroom, busy finishing her to-do list. Me, I made cookies.
Her last hour at home: I recall it vividly. Outdoors to take the laundry off the line before it gets damp with evening dew; I hear the screen door open. The girl steps out, sandwich, drink in hand, plops down on the step. I’ve never known her to watch me. Is she doing what I’m doing? She sits on the stoop, talks to me while I drop pins and dried laundry in the basket. Once finished, I tell her to scoot over, settle beside her on the cold concrete, shoulder to shoulder, our legs outstretched. As we talk, I catch myself memorizing how her hair falls and the scent of her shampoo. Breathe, just breathe, you overly dramatic mama-bear.
Then her ride arrives. It’s time. Breathe. She beams. She’s waited for this moment her entire life. Feel slightly guilty, as I’ve dreaded it just as long. Pushing the screen door open, she hands a grinning Tyler her bag. He lugs the behemoth through the yard, hoists it into the back of the vehicle. We three stand side by side, thoughtfully admiring their stuff arranged neatly in the back. I hand them the container of cookies. They have to go. She opens the passenger door, stands there, looks at me, expectantly.
The adult me has a fleeting thought—maybe I can feign strength; I’ll embrace my youngest child bravely, wish her well and off they’ll go. I’ll cheerily wave. No, instead, I hug her hard, a drowning woman frantically clutching a life preserver, and as I blubber softly against her, she tenderly whispers in my ear, “Don’t cry, Mom.”
I purposefully inhale deeply, valiantly drawing on every ounce of strength in my body, forcing myself to quit ugly-sobbing. Then, like I haven’t been punished enough, she says, “Hug Tyler, too.” I shoot her a don’t-make-me-do-this-again look. Tyler offers a conciliatory, “My mom cried.” That doesn’t make me feel better, but I hug him. They slide into the car, fasten their seatbelts, and the doors close. They slam with a thud, one that reverberates throughout my decades long, child-centered universe, vibrating, cracking the planet. Anyone else hear that besides me?
As their vehicle pulls out of the drive, my house becomes an empty nest for the very first time in 35 years. I won’t ever have to do that again. A positive?
Debbie Tanthorey Allen is a child of the 60s. Attempting to grow old gracefully and failing.