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In the Middle of Iowa

August 22, 2011

We drove to Iowa on Friday and left Eleanor there on Saturday.

Now we feel brittle. I feel like some part of my body has been removed, and if I move, it will start to hurt. Sitting in the car was a good opportunity to be very still for a long time, hoping that the wound would scab over. It’s going to take longer, though. I couldn’t remove the empty laundry basket from the back of the minivan or look in her room yet.

Chewing gum helped. I couldn’t masticate like a placid cow and let a tear slide down my face at the same time. Chewing and feeling that I looked ridiculous—which you do, you know, gum-chewers—helped remind me that it’s not about me. It’s not my journey, even though we’re the ones that have to make the trip both ways. We were listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for comfort, and the part where “it seemed remote and unreal and she could find no thoughts to think about it” struck me as a real psychological state for the first time.

I’m pretty sure that we’ve left Eleanor in a good place where she will learn stuff, make friends, and have fun. But we won’t be part of it. It was hard when we crossed the border of Iowa and it was apparent that we were really doing it, that we’d left her there.

We watched the sun rise over the prairie. It’s a very foreign landscape to me, flat and mostly treeless and well-described in this poem by Todd Davis:

In the Middle of Iowa

they arrive, hundreds of pelicans
flying south for the winter, surreal
ghosts I never imagined outside
the tropical heat of Florida, my only
glimpse of them the vacation
to Disney World at twelve. Here
their wings beat in unison above
corn fields and combines. Here
they settle upon the shallow waters
of this lake like seaplanes at a resort.

Tomorrow the north wind will travel
down from Minnesota, from Canada,
from a place so white we would be lost
in the sun’s glare upon its hard surface.
with this cold prophecy, these great birds
rise, bodies remembering the course
they must take: without lines or borders,
without a map of the known world—no
station wagon to carry them, no pink
and orange billboard to greet them, only
their souls connected by a thousand
other journeys they have made.

We would be lost…but she won’t. I keep telling myself that.

39 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011 8:23 am

    That is a big step! I still feel a bit brittle myself just leaving my kids at school or camp, so I can only imagine what it was like to drive away. But you’re right, she won’t be lost. In fact, she’ll probably find herself! Wonderful poem.

    • August 29, 2011 10:04 pm

      In the time it took me to fish this comment out of the spam filter, she has done very well. I hear from her every day in some fashion, most often a text. Today she told me about her dream that Voldemort was on a circus train. That’s one of the things I was missing, her almost daily recounting of dreams.

  2. PAJ permalink
    August 22, 2011 8:30 am

    My wish for Eleanor is that during her college years she will make friends she will still want to hang out with 30 years later…the type of friends who will cry with her when she sends her first-born off to college.

    • August 22, 2011 8:35 am

      That is something we said to her. And it is a great comfort.

  3. August 22, 2011 8:31 am

    Giving birth was really hard, but you did it. Her first day at school was hard too. It was hard dealing with school problems and discipline problems and all the stuff that goes with being a mother. This is just one more thing that proves that being a mother is a really, really hard job…but you’ll get thru this, too. I felt a lot better after a few days.

    • August 22, 2011 8:38 am

      In a few days, really? It will help that I’m starting a new job and have to get it all up and running this week. Including moving the furniture from the third floor to the basement of the library, evidently.

  4. Lass permalink
    August 22, 2011 8:34 am

    Oh…I hope the “new normal” feels less painful soon.

  5. Karen permalink
    August 22, 2011 8:44 am

    She will always be your daughter. She will always love you. She will always need you. You will not lose her; you’re about to gain parts of her that neither of you ever knew existed or could.

  6. August 22, 2011 8:45 am

    That’s a really good way to think about it.

  7. August 22, 2011 8:58 am

    You know, when we left our daughter at college for the first time (two years ago) I cried, though I am not one of *those* mothers. And for days I walked around feeling as if I had misplaced something–my keys? my glasses? no, my daughter! Or as if I were missing a limb. Ugh. I still miss her all the time, but it does get easier, especially as she becomes more and more the kind of adult I want to spend time with. (Though, of course, I get less and less time to spend with her.) Ah, I’m afraid I’m not helping at all. I really like what Karen said, above, and it is absolutely true, but I still feel the nearly physical pain of loss fairly frequently.

    • August 29, 2011 10:00 pm

      Yes. It is a nearly physical pain. Stupid little things bring it on, like when Walker was handing me dishes and I was putting them in the dishwasher, and he handed me three plates and I reached up for the fourth.

  8. August 22, 2011 9:08 am

    What I like about this post and from having seen the four of you together (even jet lagged as you all were) is that in addition to you guys clearly loving each other, you also like each other a lot. Knowing where you’ve been this past weekend sparked a lot of memories for me about when my own children were no longer living with me. So I’ll probably have to write about it.

    The only thing I’d add to Karen’s excellent words is this: you haven’t stopped being her mother. It’s just a shift in the role. In some ways, it’s been harder being a mother to adults than to children because when their needs have been strong it’s because things are not going well for them.

    Also–I admire the heck out of you. Your daughter is awesome.

    • August 22, 2011 10:24 am

      She is, isn’t she? I don’t really have too many worries about her finding her way and liking what she’s doing.

  9. freshhell permalink
    August 22, 2011 9:15 am

    All will be well. Eventually. I feel like a lose a bit of my kids every time I send them off to school where they live a life I’m not part of. And it won’t be too much longer before I’m packing Dusty off for college. Sigh. I feel sympathy melancholy pain.

    The new job, though, will give you a focus and perhaps with your son being an only child – sort of – you’ll create a new dynamic at home. A good one. Eleanor will be fine. She seems like a young woman who knows who she is with a good head on her shoulders. She’s starting a great new adventure. And so are you.

    • August 22, 2011 10:26 am

      She’s starting a great new adventure, certainly. The “so am I” part must take a few days to kick in.

      • freshhell permalink
        August 22, 2011 2:09 pm

        Well, yeah. It’s the opposite of when you brought children into the house. You had to create a whole new routine around the new dynamics. Now, it’s shrinking but you have to do the same thing. Which of course is easy for me to say.

  10. Jodie permalink
    August 22, 2011 9:15 am

    Awww 😦

    • August 22, 2011 10:31 am

      You know, I’m not a person who has felt too sad at my kids’ other rites of passage. But tonight will be the first time I’ve ever been separated from her for more than one night in 18 years…exactly (since tomorrow is her 18th birthday).

      • Jodie permalink
        August 24, 2011 6:14 am

        Oh that’s a shame that she had to go away just before that! I hope she had a fab one and at least it’ll be a great way to make new friends.

  11. August 22, 2011 9:16 am

    I can’t help but point out that it is your journey. It’s just that your journey and hers are linked, but not the same.

    (My mother referred to this as the “Spartan woman” phase… the bearing up and keeping it together so that your kid doesn’t have to add “what happens to mom” to all their first-week angst. Anyway, there’s actually an excellent chance that the last thing she said to me before getting in the car was “with your shield or on it.”)

    • August 22, 2011 10:28 am

      Spartan woman–I love it! We’ve been listening to the soundtrack of The Book of Mormon a lot lately, and loving the song where the Africans have a phrase that makes them feel better, but it’s not hakuna matata. I gave her a phrase to use when she feels discouraged, from another musical theater era: “you’ve got to give Iowa a try.”

  12. August 22, 2011 12:25 pm

    Hi Jeanne — it is hard. It is definitely hard. But as someone above said, it’s also amazing to watch them go out into the world and do things – things you may never even have thought of doing. But it takes a while for that to feel amazing. It’s also hard because it takes a while for them to feel capable of doing those things, and there’s nothing you can really do to help. Sending care packages is good, apparently. (Did you get the talk about — okay, parents, now it’s time to let go and walk away? We got that at two places.)

    • August 22, 2011 6:26 pm

      Yeah, we got that talk. We have always been on the other side of it, and that didn’t make it any easier to hear it. One guy said it was discouraging to him to see a first-year texting his mom after a great class, rather than talking to his classmates about it. This has caused me to think before I text.

      • August 23, 2011 1:06 pm

        Oh, that guy is a prune. They will make friends. Texting their mothers will not harm their social development! Actually, the second time I got the talk I felt better about it, because by then I realized (as I had suspected the first time) that I was not the very worst sort of attached parent. I’m sure you are not either, if Eleanor has been successfully dressing herself for a while now.

        • August 24, 2011 7:36 am

          …did I tell you about when she came out as gray?

  13. August 22, 2011 7:41 pm

    *hug* It’s all about finding the thing that stops you from crying. When Mumsy and my aunt brought me up to New York, I thought about the Black Panthers and the terrible things done to and by members of their organization. It was super effective. It turns out you cannot cry and at the same time also contemplate the outrageous murder by the FBI of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Because of outrage! Or something.

    • August 22, 2011 7:42 pm

      Er, all of that to say, very sensible to figure out the chewing gum thing. That doesn’t work for me because it turns out I can cry and chew gum at the same time. It just gets messy.

      • August 22, 2011 9:13 pm

        Messy, huh? That made me smile. There is certainly a trick to figuring out what will arrest your train of thought when it starts going towards self-indulgence. I find that different things work for me at different times of my life, and in different situations. The gum thing was totally new, and it might not work for anyone whose mother was less disparaging about the way chewing gum looks to anyone else–which is to say, anyone else in the world.

  14. August 22, 2011 8:53 pm

    I’m sure it was a difficult moment for both of you. A big big milestone. I remember when my mom left me at college, I felt a huge sense of emptiness and sadness. It was huge. But then I began my new adventure and we all adjusted over time.

    • August 22, 2011 9:15 pm

      It helps to get together with some other moms whose kids have also just gone away to college. We had a cocktail party tonight and talked about it, and it’s nice to be with people in the same boat.

  15. August 22, 2011 9:19 pm

    I was thinking about you all weekend. it’s very, very exciting for her, but that is a change I can just barely imagine. I’m glad you’ve got new beginnings of your own to preoccupy you.

    • August 22, 2011 9:40 pm

      Keeping busy helps on both ends, which is why first-year orientation keeps them hopping far into the night. But I think that nothing helps in those moments of waking up and going to sleep, for a while.

  16. August 23, 2011 9:22 am

    All I got are smiles to offer. Iowa. Makes me think of Field of Dreams…

    • August 23, 2011 10:35 am

      Yes–I was amused to see that for her birthday today one of my friends quoted Field of Dreams: “is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”

      • August 23, 2011 1:08 pm

        There’s something sort of appropriate about her leaving on her birthday —

  17. Carol Schumacher permalink
    August 24, 2011 6:45 am

    Even I am wistful and slightly teary about Eleanor going off. I like your word for it; “brittle” is just right. As you know, I keep reminding myself how much better my life got when I went to College. (It wasn’t that I was longing to get away from my parents and my brothers. It was the rest of my world that opened up!) And yes, gum chewing looks ridiculous, but I love it anyway!

    • Carol Schumacher permalink
      August 24, 2011 6:47 am

      I hate posting things when the punctuation wasn’t right. There. I said it. Now I have to breathe deeply and let go of it.

    • August 24, 2011 7:42 am

      We all had such a good experience at a small, liberal arts college like hers that we think it will be as wonderful for her as it was for us–and still is, this many years later, as we live near each other, travel to see each other, and schedule bi-annual vacations together!

      There’s a thing I find insidious about WP which is that I can edit your comments if you ask me to. It’s technically possible for me to do it without you asking me, but not psychologically possible. I would feel like Emperor Palpatine.

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