The plane lifted off the ground and the buildings and cars and trees below quickly became nothing more than small gray smudges against the earth. Clouds soon enveloped the tiny window next to me and unable to see past the foggy haze anymore I sat back, willing myself not to cry.
I had just said goodbye to my daughter who is spending a few months abroad in Europe.
I arrived a week earlier and she met me outside of my hotel where I held her in my arms for an embarrassingly long time, burying my face in her shoulder and drinking in the familiar, delicious scent of her. She proudly showed me around her city: the coffee shops she frequents with friends, the bakery where she gets her morning pastry, the bars with the best sangria.
Despite the relentless rain we had a wonderful week, traveling about, meeting her gracious host family, touring the university, listening to the stories of her adventures in foreign countries, but as happy as I was to see her, somewhere below the surface I kept feeling a slight something; a tremor, a subtle shifting…something had changed and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
So now as I sat there on that plane, the miles between us growing with each passing minute, I thought back to the beginning of this life journey which we had started together so long ago.
I remembered bringing her home for the first time, setting the car seat down in the living room and just sitting and staring at her… I was terrified; filled with fear at the realization that I was now responsible for the very survival of this tiny, helpless creature. Oh, how she needed me and oh, how it frightened me. She needed me to be her sustenance. She needed me to be her voice. She needed me to be her eyes. She needed me in ways I had never been needed before and it was, I thought, too much. But somehow, step-by-step, day-by-day we made it through and slowly, overtime, my confidence grew until I found myself on the other side of the ambivalence, suddenly relishing the fact that she needed me.
She needed me.
How flattering. How empowering. How wonderful.
I was needed.
I thought back to when she needed me to clean off her skinned toddler knees after falling in the park. I thought back to when she needed me to stay by her side as she wobbled down the street on her two-wheeler. I thought back to when she needed me to coax her into the pool, “Come ‘on. Jump! You can do it!”
How she needed me later still to help her navigate the strange changes in her body, the unexpected torment of fluctuating middle school friendships and the confusing new interactions with boys.
Then I thought back to that summer after a particularly bad school year during which a ruthless teenage bully had undone all of my child’s confidence.
I had wiped her tears and told her that this mean girl was no good. That the things she said weren’t true. That it was all just garbage. But no matter how many times I told her that she was beautiful and perfect, I couldn’t fix what was broken. She needed something else.
“It’s called Girls Leadership,” I said, handing her the colorful brochure sporting photos of teenage girls rock climbing and zip lining. “I think it might be good for you.”
She gave it a fleeting glance and handed it back, saying with the sage wisdom of a teenager, “You can call it whatever you want Mom. I know what it is. It’s confidence camp.”
The night before she left we went for a walk on the beach and she cried and begged and pleaded,
“Please don’t make me go.”
How I wanted to say, “You’re right. Forget it. Stay with me. I will make it all better.”
But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because while I wanted to always be the one who could magically kiss away her fears and fix her bad days, ultimately it wasn’t me she needed anymore.
She needed to go. She needed to discover that she would be all right on her own. She needed to climb over those rocks by herself and if she fell, well then she needed to find her own way up.
She needed something more than me.
She needed herself.
So there on that plane, as I thought back through all those years, I finally realized what the unsettled feeling I had been having all week truly was: it was the glorious, beautiful, and bittersweet goodbye of childhood.
She has done it. She is standing on her own now without me by her side. She is scrambling over those rocks. She will stumble, this is certain, but if I am not there to offer a hand, it’s ok. She will get herself back up. She will clean off her own skinned knee. She will whisper to herself, “Come ‘on. Jump! You can do it.”