The room was cheery, with bright sunshine coming through the windows. There were colorful pictures on the wall and a circle of carpet squares on the floor. I felt the grip of the little hand in mine tighten as we walked through the door.
Her little face looked up at me as she gave the teacher a tentative smile. Slowly, I pulled my hand away from hers and released her grip. I knew I had to let go and give her the confidence to enter that room. She followed the teacher to her seat, but her eyes never left mine. She searched my face for signs that she was safe and that she would be OK. I felt the knot tightening in my stomach as I struggled to keep the smile firmly planted on my face. I give a wave and quickly turned away, just in time for the tear to fall. It was the first day of school for my baby.
Maybe I cried because she was my youngest, maybe because she seemed more nervous than my other child, or maybe because I had experience as a mom. On that day, I became painfully aware that although it was only the first day of preschool, the clock was activated. Time would now begin to move quickly -- with or without my permission.
I was right. As if looking at a trailer to a movie, I see images of my tiny, petite, blonde little girl playing house with her first preschool friend. She taught him to vacuum, dust and cook on the little plastic kitchen set in the corner of the classroom. This became their daily routine. (Today, he is a six foot tall 18-year-old young man who I believe has plans to start his own cleaning business).
There are images of her holding her ground each morning and insisting that she wear that little red dress again for the fourth time that week. Conversations in the kitchen as a packed her lunch filled with only plain bread and certain snacks. She would scoop up the lunch bag, flash me a big smile and ask, "Did you put my note in the bag?" Of course there was a note. There was always a note with a variation on the same theme --some messages were silly with stick figures drawn, some were more love notes, but always signed with a symbol of a heart and the word "mommy." Now, I admit that although the frequency of the notes changed over the years, I am not beyond sticking an occasional note in the backpack of my senior in high school. I simply act is if I don't notice the eye roll. Because what she has never really understood is that the notes, while cherished and important to her, were also for me. I needed her to know that I was thinking of her.
As I looked out the window, watching my grown daughter run to the mailbox with great anxiety, looking for the much-anticipated letter from her number one college, I felt that familiar knot. I held my breath with full awareness of the intuitive need and desire of a mother to protect her children from pain and disappointment. Through the snow-covered branches of the tree near the house, I saw the big orange envelope emerge from the mailbox. She let out a big yell and began to run back to the house and into the kitchen carrying the orange package. I knew this image would become part of so many others in my mind, that not even the passage of time would erase it.
Standing in the kitchen watching her cry, I flashed back to another image. It is the image of little girl winning the spelling bee, taking first place in the geography contest, receiving an award in a writing contest in middle school, excelling in her honor and AP classes but always with a bit of anxiety and self-doubt.
Watching her standing there holding her acceptance letter with tears streaming down her face, I saw the little girl in the back seat of the car "pretending to be sleeping" as I drove through the drop-off lane to the entrance of the school. I knew she struggled with a mixture of loving school and anxiety with separating along with a subtle fear of the unknown. Sometimes I would bribe her to get out of the car, sometimes yell and sometimes physically carry her into the building. But each time I would drive out of the parking lot, brush away a tear and remind myself that she would be fine.
Time. Today, the scene in my kitchen is different. While still my beautiful, petite blonde little girl, the exchange between us is different but yet still familiar. This time, as we both stand in the kitchen crying and hugging, it is me that has to look up at her. Our eyes meet and I find myself scanning her face for signs that she will be OK or maybe more accurately, that I will be OK. She smiles at me. With far more tears running down my face than I had ever expected, it is she who breaks the hug first and gently pulls her hand out of mine this time. She smiles again and scoops up her phone to begin to share the news. She dials the phone to call her dad, her grandparents, her sister... She is smiling, crying, nervous, laughing and happy. I moved away from the counter to give her some privacy and I watched her from a distance. In that moment, I realized the letting go process had begun. I have raised a woman.