While standing in an airport security line recently, I got to witness firsthand what being the parent of a young adult really means.
A young woman of college age was in the line behind me, her backpack loaded heavily and ear buds hanging around her neck, she was talking to her father who was standing a few feet away.
“Dad, I promise I’ll call as soon as I get to Rome,” she said.
He nodded nervously, and like any dad about to send their little girl across the ocean, desperately wanted reassurance. “OK,” he said.
And rocking back and forth anxiously he continued, “But don’t forget! And your phone should work as soon as you land, but if it doesn’t…”
Before he could finish, she interrupted, “Dad, it will work! And if it doesn’t, I’ll call you from Laura’s phone. I’ll be fine! It’s fine!”
And he nodded agreeably-though with little conviction, and I knew that when he looked at her, he didn’t see a confidant woman about to embark on a great adventure. He saw a little girl headed to Kindergarten, and taking her first timid steps on the school bus. It was time to be just as brave with this goodbye as it was when she started school.
“Well Dad, I’m off!” she announced proudly while she loaded her belongings onto the x-ray belt, then walked to retrieve them from the other side.
And she never looked back at her dad again.
However, I did.
There he stood- in a position and at a moment that I, too have become very familiar with. Misty eyes. Lips every so lightly curved up, but quivering. Chin held high but shoulders shrugged, his body language projecting the perfect dichotomy of pride and panic. He stood there (I’m sure with his heart in his throat because he’d seen the movie “Taken”), and watched the young woman he raised strut with all the confidence of a seasoned CEO off into the unknown. “Be brave,” he must have been telling himself, as his memory bank replaced his grown daughter with his little girl for a few more fleeting seconds. Then he turned and walked away, as did she.
“Life is now just a series of goodbyes,” my retired neighbor told me one day, while I was lamenting to her after college Christmas break that all it seems I do lately is say “goodbye” to my kids.
She was so right, but what I failed to realize (or was able to easily do) was that I needed to say those goodbyes bravely. My new goodbye face should reveal no sadness or angst, only joy and gratitude. I should refrain from letting my kids see how depressing it was for me to see them leave again and again, and how it still filled me with sadness sometimes.
Instead I needed to train my mind into thinking that each and every time we share a goodbye, it’s a good thing. It’s means they possess the fearless certainty I just spent two decades ensuring they have, and now that it was on full display, I needed to embrace it fully, not doubt its timing. In the same way we train our muscles to become stronger by flexing them over and over again, I needed to flex my brave goodbye muscle. And so I did.
The goodbye after his first spring break home? I did some mental faith exercises and flexed the brave goodbye muscle. When he back for a summer term? Flexed. Returning for fall semester? Flexed again. And then for spring, summer, and fall again- flexed, flexed, flexed.
Does it get easier? It does indeed. But just like after months of running training you may find you’re able to do it for longer and with less exertion, it doesn’t mean you spring out of bed daily with the burning desire to run. Even though I was getting better at flexing the brave goodbye muscle, it would still be sore for days after. It was a soreness that can only be found in the heart of a mother- where once a child settled in nicely and lived full time, now an adult took up only part time residence and breezed in an out at will. And it hurt. Badly.
I watched that brave father walk out of the airport terminal that day, and could almost feel the pull between his heart and his daughter’s heart stretch with longing and parental love. And then because he wasn’t able to, I followed that young lady to her gate, then watched her settle into a seat and await her plane to Rome. What a lucky young woman to have such a brave father. I hope she calls him as soon as she lands.
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Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.