Saturday, February 2, 2013

Apron Strings

And I'll be perfect in my way
When you cry I will be there I'll sing to you and comb your hair
All your troubles I will share
For apron strings, can be used for other things
Than what they're meant for and
You'd be happy wrapped in my apron strings

There are these times as a parent that the indelible ink of memory makes a little note in your soul.  You don’t know it at the time – you’re reminded of them later, often multiple times.  The first time your child climbs the impossibly high steps of the school bus, you think of those wobbly first steps.  When you move just before the 6th grade and she struggles with stomach aches and wants to retreat to the safety of her room and you have to be reduced to “tough love” – something you thought you only read about with a whispered ‘oh the poor thing’ but would never ever have to use – you are reminded of her first episode of ‘separation anxiety’.  There are so many moments and the heart is happy to unlock vault of the tiny gemstones of memory; to give flesh to the bones of the reality of these singular moments.  We’ve been there before; it’s just a variation on a theme.

They call them “apron strings” and at some point in our lives, we’re supposed to cut them.  I’m finding as a parent that we don’t cut them; they have a life of their own and they succumb on their own accord.

When I was a Junior in college, I was sent off – like my older sister before me and the two behind me to follow – to France, for a year abroad.  There were no cell phones; I was not equipped with a credit card.  In fact the only instructions I had were to call via long distance only in the event of an emergency.  At that time, the average cost of a 10 minute transatlantic conversation equaled the GDP of an emerging country.   My mom put me on a plane in Buffalo, New York bound for JFK in New York City to catch my connection.  I don’t remember her seeming overly concerned; her apron strings seemed to have long since been cut.

I made that trip without thinking too much about ‘what if’; I just made my way as was expected.  I had apprehension about going overseas and was already anticipating my return: leaving the comfort of the familiar is no small task as a child.  Somehow, I managed to navigate the waters of the foreign land, the language I barely spoke, and feeling ripped from everything in which I thought I was fluent.  But in that year I gained a gift more valuable than the culture and language of a foreign land: I learned self-reliance.  I recognized it immediately upon my return – the asking the question in class to the professor everyone else feared, to not depend on my parents for everything, to take the first steps to owning my life.

Last week, I drove my own daughter to Dulles Airport for a semester in London.  It was a semester, not a year.  She was going to a country with a familiar language.  She would have a cell phone, a laptop with skype, a credit card for emergencies.  She would have an immediate, digital lifeline.  And that provided me no comfort at all.  I was sending her off into the big vast world full of things that didn’t exist when I made my grand adventure: regular terrorist alerts, the need to procure digital fingerprints as part of a student visa, the fear of planes exploding over the Atlantic.  Yes, my brain could take comfort in the statistics;  My heart blew the statistics out of proportion.  All I could see was her as a baby, as a toddler, as a brilliant precocious child… and I couldn’t bear the thought of her being in harm’s way.  My head was quick to remind me she was in harm’s way every day: we can’t predict the speeding busses of chaos theory and fate and can only give our kids grit and fortify their own resilience.

We arrived at the airport early, plenty of time for lunch.  I bought her a small amount of British pounds ‘just in case’.  We checked her luggage and then it was time for her to go through the TSA pre-screening.  This was it – I couldn’t go past this check point.  She smiled and couldn’t wait to go.  I snapped a quick photo and watched her get on the descending escalator.  I found a chair and waited – I’d told her I wouldn’t leave for the 2+ hour car ride back to Richmond until she’d made it through security and was safely ensconced at her gate.  Within 15 minutes, the message arrived: security was a breeze and she’d grabbed a Starbucks and was waiting to board.

And it was time for me to go.  I felt so utterly empty – a big piece of me had gone down that escalator.  As I walked back to my car the beautiful memories of her life flashed in my mind: her birth… her first steps… her loving to smell flowers and ending up with pollen on her little nose… her first day of school… moving… the short walk to my car provided 21 years of highlights.  And I found I was wiping away tears and my head thinking “Oh would you STOP THIS RIGHT NOW!”  Apron strings are not cut.  They unravel over the course of the years and each little inch of thread is lodged in our heads in the form of memory.

It was cold and the parking garage in Dulles was gray and without comfort. The tears flowed down my face for me to have courage, to allow my daughter the freedom to have her great adventure without the shackles of parental need.  I know now my mother suffered when I got on that plane, but she knew the greater need to loosen the ties that bind.  She was giving me wings and an opportunity to find my way on my terms.  Those apron strings may loosen and unravel, but they will stretch.  And they never break.

I walked to my car, tears rolling down my face, my head doing battle with my own sentimental weakness and fear for my girl.  But this time, my heart stepped in and said “It’s ok.  I see those memories and you’ve earned those tears.”  For once, my heart was on my side.