Her brown hair, gathered up in a messy bun atop her head, this is what I noticed as my train pulled away from the station after moving my 22-year old daughter, Hannah, to New York City, where—years earlier—the two of us had shared in a mother/daughter trip to attend Broadway shows. A decade later, Hannah had landed an internship with a Broadway casting company. Where I’d once guided Hannah around this city with my laminated, tri-fold subway map, she now used an App on her phone to guide me. Unsure of myself, Hannah had walked me to the platform under Times Square to catch my train bound for JFK.
From the train, I strained my eyes for a last glimpse of my daughter on the platform. Unexpectedly, a different image of my daughter descended: her brown hair, hanging long and straight down the back of a dark blue, polyester Rotary blazer. I could see my sixteen-year-old daughter walking alone through security at the Minneapolis International Airport on August 12, 2009, the day my oldest child embarked on a solo journey to Nagasaki, Japan. As I watched her go that day, I knew two things: She did not yet speak Japanese and, in Tokyo, she’d have to take a bus from Narita airport to the other side of Tokyo, to catch an intra-country flight to Nagasaki.
Looking back, I guess I must have known two more things: my daughter was strong and she was resourceful. Even so, I’m not sure how I let her go.
In the years since that goodbye, I’d mostly left the memory folded neatly away. It was difficult, yes, but we made it through. You do what you need to. Everything worked out, in the end. Forgiving platitudes stood guard around that prickly memory but, apparently, the guards were sleeping on that metal box en route to Jamaica Station. While I tried to focus on the train’s black linoleum floor, with its white and blue flecks, this did not stop tears that had been carefully dammed for six years. At least I was allowed the privacy of anonymity. Those around pretended not to notice me, the middle-aged woman sinking deep into the collar of her gray wool, side-buttoning coat.
On that train, images unspooled of the hours just before Hannah left for Japan the first time (because, yes, she went again—for just a semester—in college). Already missing her, I tiptoed into her bedroom that last night and found her awake. I folded myself protectively around her in bed and I wondered if we couldn’t call the whole thing off.
But then Hannah asked, “How did I ever think I could be away from my mommy for an entire year?” She started to cry. I knew I had to be the strong one. For hours, I pressed tissue after tissue to Hannah’s eyes. We rose from no sleep at 4:45 am. After eating no breakfast, we drove to the airport, where I watched Hannah pass through the security gate; I watched her lovely brown hair pass just beyond my reach. She didn’t look back.
Some journeys, once begun, cannot be interrupted.
I collapsed into my husband’s arms and sobbed.
Back home from the airport, I climbed into Hannah’s bed to consume her still-lingering scent. There, I found several tissues, wet with her tears. Her half-full glass of water was still on her bedside table (I left it there for a week). No! I silently railed at no one in particular and at everyone who had praised the value of a foreign exchange. I went downstairs, still clutching the wet tissues, and told my husband, “I’m going back to the airport to get her.” He only shook his head; he’d never thought the year abroad was a good idea.
I restrained myself; she hadn’t looked back.
During the Rotary training sessions, meant to prepare students and parents for the year ahead, we’d been told that—after an initial phone call to confirm safe arrival—it was best to avoid contact for the first three months. The emotional distance apparently helps outbound students overcome homesickness and culture shock.
Some rules are meant to be broken.
On what would have been Hannah’s second day in Japan, I opened an email from Hannah. She reported that her lunch was on the kitchen counter; she could see its tentacles moving. Hannah wrote, “Mom, this is not my path. I want to come home.”
I did the math that was already becoming automatic—Minnesota time plus twelve hours, plus an additional two. At 9:30 am it would be 11:30 pm in Japan. She’d not likely see my email until the next day. Things will get better. I wrote her an encouraging note, telling her to give it more time. I also played the “duty” card; you have an obligation . . . blah, blah, blah . . . to your sponsoring Rotary Club.
As that first month wore on, Hannah continued to email me daily: listing frustrations, asking to come home. During those early days, I often reminded myself of the summer she’d attended a four-week Spanish immersion language camp. On day three, I received a letter begging me to “please, please” come get her. Although that letter tore at my heart, I left her at camp; surely the staff would call me if she couldn’t handle it. When I picked her up on the last day of camp, I saw how she’d grown; I knew she was happy she’d stayed.
As time progressed, Hannah’s emails from Japan eventually began to sound less desperate and, occasionally, included more mundane reports signaling that she might yet settle in:
-My host mother taught me to ride the trolley alone to high school.
-I hope to make some friends at school.
-I’ve started to pick up a little of the language.
-My host father remembers some of the English that he learned as an exchange student a long time ago.
-My host grandmother gave me a cool Kimono yesterday.
It still wasn’t easy, but—possibly—these were tender shoots of hope.
For me, the hardest moments of the exchange year came when Hannah was sick. Each time Hannah emailed with new digestive complaints, I fought off the urge to bring her home. On the hardest day, I received a phone call telling me that Hannah had been taken to the hospital and placed on “Tamiflu” for an illness that I had previously assessed, via Skype, as just a bad cold. Internet research, never a good idea, told me that some Japanese youth had jumped out windows after taking the Asian version of Tamiflu.
In spite of her difficulties, about five months into the exchange, I began to see something remarkable happen: Hannah began to trust in her own ability to manage the daily challenges arising in her life abroad. Her emails to me grew more infrequent and, when they did come, she talked about new friends and experiences—like taking the bullet train to Kyoto and a trip to Tokyo with her favorite host mom (she had three host families that year). That’s when I finally stopped asking if I should bring her home.
When Hannah returned for her senior year of high school, a more independent version of her previous self stepped off the plane from Japan. Here was a young woman who could navigate foreign travel alone and was proficient in the Japanese language. During her first week home, she treated family members to a full Japanese tea ceremony and astounded us—in mostly good ways—with her bold Japanese fashions. As Hannah began to apply to colleges across the country, her story of transformation through the exchange year provided fodder for admission essays.
By the time I was helping Hannah move to New York City, she’d graduated from college and had spent most of her first post-college year living with roommates in Los Angeles. Although she’d already lived apart from me, I could sense her anxiety as we awaited my train. I studied her side profile. I recognized apprehension in her eyes. Her words were careful and sparse. Before her lay the work of becoming an adult, in a city where she didn’t know a soul; the soul she knew best was returning to Minnesota.
My tears did not come that day because I doubted Hannah’s abilities. She knew how to take care of herself; she was resilient. As the train sped through darkness, it was my own resilience I doubted. I wasn’t quite sure how to let go of my oldest child, the first one to spread her wings. By the time I was seated on the plane for my flight home, the tears had stopped. I decided I would simply take this new act of “letting go” one step at a time.
The work of becoming an adult, it seems, never really ends.
Heidi Fettig Parton is a mother of three who embraces career variety; she has been a lawyer, a legal publisher, and a yoga instructor. Currently, she is a candidate for an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. She has written for Assay Journal, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), The Mighty, and others. This spring, she is interning at Agate magazine.