After eight days of being gone, my boy came home a different child.
I put him on a bus in England and watched him drive away, across a country, across the Channel, across half a continent. I got a text message from one of the teachers the next day telling me they’d arrived safely in Italy.
Then I spent eight days scouring occasional Facebook posts from the school, full of pictures of children covered entirely from head to toe in layers of winter gear wearing helmets and goggles and scarves, for a glimpse of his face.
I saw him twice, smiling at the base of the mountain on the first day and standing with his arm slung over a friend at the bowling alley near the end of the week.
For eight days I didn’t hear his voice. My house, despite the three remaining children, was strangely empty, weirdly out of balance. We were missing a piece that made the parts a whole.
I knew when he stepped off the bus after eight long days that he was a new man. I could see it in his face, in his smile, in his body language. In the way he said goodbye and thanked the teachers who’d chaperoned the trip and got his own bag out of the bottom of the bus. He’d found an independence he’d never known, and now it was his to keep.
Still the same at heart, though, he flung his arms around me right there in the parking lot of his school and hugged me and kissed me hello in front of all his friends because if there’s one thing this boy isn’t, it’s embarrassed to show emotions. Thank every god there is for that, because I needed every last hug he had to give.
As he walked across the parking lot dragging his ski bag in his wake and shouting goodbyes to his friends, I had an uneasy realization that we’d crossed a bridge and left behind a little irretrievable piece of childhood.
We went home and he showered for the first time in several days and I put on the first of at least three loads of his dirty ski laundry and made us both a cup of tea, and we sat on the couch and I gratefully listened to every last detail of the skiing and the sledding and the food and the two 12-hour bus rides. I soaked in every word and smiled at the odd details an 11-yr old boy remembers and feels the need to share (“our instructor had really cool hair” and “the pasta at the hotel was a weird shape one night”). And he hugged me, a dozen times at least, and said that even though he was never homesick, he did really miss us.
Parenting is a series of heartbreaks. When we do it right, we teach them how to stop needing us, how to move away and become themselves, and in doing so we make ourselves obsolete. I know it’s for the best; that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.
But I’ll take a cup of tea together, some silly stories, and a few hugs for as long as he’s willing to give them.