First there was Mi Esqualita, the sweet little school in a brownstone in Brooklyn. The one with guitar playing Tias and playground pals. On your very first day, dressed in cargo shorts and a polo shirt, a tiny backpack on your shoulders, you marched right off without a second thought. With nary a look back.
Like for three years it hadn’t just been me and you, kid.
To be honest, it cracked my heart. But if that first day cracked it, it was your second day that broke it. That’s the day you didn’t march off. You clung to my leg and cried. As one of the guitar playing teachers led you away, another shooed me out of the door with promises that you’d be just fine. I smiled my biggest, best Mom smile, swallowed my heart and pretended I believed her.
Less than ten minutes went by before she called. You were fine. She was fine. All was fine.
Me? I was not fine.
Even as an infant you had your eyes forward. Once you were old enough to face outward into the world, your entire baby demeanor changed. At nine and a half months you took your first solid steps and you’ve been walking away ever since. Sometimes you looked back at me over your shoulder with a smile, but most of the time you looked straight ahead at wherever it was you wanted to go. I’d give you my biggest, brightest Mom smile, the one meant to encourage you.
A few hesitant steps and then you were running, more often than not away from me, in the other direction.
Then it was a new school in a new country. We’d packed you up with your toys and the bedding and flew you halfway around the world, landing in a dusty, unfamiliar landscape. I dropped you at that sweet little house across the street from a parking lot full of tumbleweeds. You walked up steps shaded by overhanging trees, wearing shorts and a sky blue Storm Trooper tee, just a little bit unsure and just a little bit shy-you, my never shy child. You, who had always run into our local playgrounds like you owned them, matchbox cars in hand. But here you were, out of your element. My NYC baby in the middle of the Mediterranean. Mid-step you glanced at me over your shoulder, hesitating. I smiled my biggest, brightest Mom smile and again, swallowed my heart. I waited until you were inside and then I cried. I cried all the way home, past the tumbleweeds, past the dusty parking lot, past the olive trees back to an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar city.
Then a year later you were starting kindergarten and you seemed impossibly old to me in your uniform, excited to start reading and writing and all the other things you couldn’t wait to do. And you soared, flying high, never once looking down where I was waiting, in case you needed me. I smiled that big, bright Mom smile when you came home and told me all about it. What a big boy you were!
Then another new school in another new country. We walked together down the hallway to your new classroom, and I will never forget the four boys who ran out to greet you, excitedly introducing themselves: Anson, Jacob, Alexander, and Liam.
I readied my big, bright smile, but you never looked back.
And then the march through primary and into middle school. Then, impossibly, high school. In this strange life where there’s often a revolving door of friendships, you have been blessed with the kindest bunch of friends anyone could ask for. Finn and Joe and Quinten and Wilf and yes, Liam, who’s now six foot four and could probably crush me with his biceps, but otherwise it’s the same.
But not, because in ten short weeks you’ll all walk through the school doors and start your senior year.
I’ll smile my biggest, brightest Mom smile, the one telling you it’s all going to be alright.
Who am I kidding?
You look at me when I get sappy–which is a lot these days–and can’t figure out why. You don’t remember, but I do. I remember those days like pictures etched on my heart. All of those moments when I said goodbye to little pieces of you. Off you’d go, sometimes looking back at me while I smiled my biggest, brightest Mom smile.
But of course you always came back. Sitting to my left in your spot at the kitchen table, to my right in the dining room. One day not all that long ago–or perhaps it was a lifetime ago–I turned around to talk to you and your eyes were level with mine. It took my breath away. Last year your favorite game was to pick me up and walk around the kitchen. Feats of boy/man strength. You tolerate my sappiness, standing still, arms outstretched like a statue, so that I can wrap my arms around you. Somehow, we’ve switched places: my head now fits under your chin when for so many years, it was you tucked into me.
Be patient with me over the next year, kid. It is the end of the beginning. Or perhaps it is the beginning of the end.
In my heart you’re still the three year-old who reached out for me, the four year-old who was a little unsure, the five year-old confidently marching into kindergarten, and the seven year-old who strode off with confidence with four new friends by his side.
Only sometimes of course. Most of the time you’re the young man who is kind to a fault and easy to laugh, who still has the same circle of wonderful friends. Who tolerates his mother’s sudden weepiness at the passage of time.
You’re walking away, like you’ve been doing bit by bit, all along.
I will smile my biggest, brightest Mom smile through it all, encouraging you like I’ve always done.
Just promise me you’ll look back, at least now and again. Because, kiddo? That biggest, brightest Mom smile?
A lot of times it’s hiding a heart that is still a little bit cracked.