Empty nest … sort of
Sept. 22, 2011
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
I watched my daughter, Aleksandra, walk along the jet way until she disappeared. At 15-years-old, she left for 10 months to study abroad in a French-speaking region of Switzerland.
Aleksandra and I spent fleeting time at her departure gate laughing, crying and simply leaning on each other, striving for the physical closeness that would soon elude us. We didn’t notice the earth tremble at 1:53 p.m. on Aug. 23 at Boston’s Logan Airport. We experienced our own emotional earthquake.
My husband waited in the terminal on the other side of security. One parent was allowed to see her off.
A couple boarding the plane who witnessed our tearful goodbye assured me that she’d be fine.
“It’s harder for the parents,” they said.
Departures mark rites of passage in our lives. Entrusting a precious newborn with a caregiver, sending toddlers to pre-school, dropping kids off at summer camp, or packing young adults off to college or the military represent opening and closing of chapters in our lives. It’s a loss. It’s also an opportunity.
While still a toddler, my daughter was a committed Robert Resnik groupie at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library. We arrived early for his performances, reading books on the floor of the expansive children’s room, waiting for Robert to arrive with his magic guitar.
Aleksandra was not one to sit on my lap very long. She never was a “clinging to mom’s apron straps” kind of kid. While most kids nestled in their mothers’ laps taking in musical vibes, she was 20 feet away, dancing at the front of the room. If she spotted a familiar mom — someone from church or swim lessons — she might seek to climb on board and “share” a lap (this, understandably, resulted in mixed success depending on the temperament of the toddler already ensconced on his or her mother’s lap!).
I remember sometimes wishing my daughter would cling to me just a little bit more. I ultimately accepted that she was her own person. She moved buoyantly, several steps ahead of me, secure in the knowledge that I followed close behind.
Ten years ago, I held Aleksandra’s hand as she waited for the bus on her first day of kindergarten at Allen Brook School. She wore an orange and pink jumper, and Mary Jane’s with shiny buckles. She boarded that enormous bus wearing a blue rucksack that seemed gargantuan on her little back. I knew I needed to trust Nancy — the bus driver — to bring her safely to and from school. I cried as the bus pulled away.
We raise our children as best we can, realizing strides and making some mistakes along the way. Lessons in self-reliance promote confidence and teach us that we truly are the masters of our destiny. Allowing our children to take risks — physical, academic and, yes, geographic —helps them grow.
The magic that is Skype allows us to check in with our daughter and look into her eyes to see that she is really OK. She tells of getting lost on campus and having to ask others — students, teachers and secretaries — for help. She mentions missing the bus home and finding the main bus station to catch an alternative bus. She notes classmates who laugh (good-naturedly) at her as she stumbles through French phrases. She observes that “math is easy” because the concepts transcend language barriers. She comments on the warmth and genuine kindness of her host parents and five host siblings. She speaks in awe of how beautiful the Swiss landscape is.
We have our children for a short time. They are not ours to keep. My sadness in missing my daughter is matched, and often surpassed, by genuine excitement for the adventure she has defined for herself. She may miss an extraordinary class or activity at CVU this year; she stands to gain other experiences that will shape and inform the person she becomes.
With Aleksandra settled on the plane, all I wanted to do was find my husband and land in his warm embrace. As we nurture our children, we must also nurture our relationships with our partners. Sooner or later, life returns to “just us.”