Last weekend, as my 14-year-old daughter was getting ready for her first homecoming dance, I could hear her upstairs talking and laughing with her older sister who was watching her curl her hair and giving her tips for the big night.
Her older sister who is 300 miles away at college.
Happily, it’s not an unusual sight, sound, or occurrence in our house despite that fact—you know, the fact that the older daughter refused to be home-colleged and insisted on spreading her wings and all that other stuff that I foolishly encouraged a year ago. Although they’re over five years apart, my girls share an intense bond and have since the day I told the older sibling I was pregnant. And much like when you try to pull your fingers apart after accidentally Super Gluing them together, the 300-mile move to college made their separation excruciatingly painful—for them, obviously, but in witnessing it, for me as well.
Like I needed any more pain.
I can remember starting to worry about it when my older daughter was in 10th grade. The thought of them not being together on a daily basis—watching their favorite TV shows, gossiping and laughing in one of their rooms, running my menial errands for me, or just lying next to each other on the couch while immersed in their own screens—was frankly too much to bear, even more so than the thought of my own predicted anguish. With two years to go until it was time for the college transition, the only way I could deal with any of it was to deny it would happen.
Denial: Best coping mechanism ever.
But it happened. No matter how many times I’d push the nauseating thought of my girls being apart out of my mind to save myself from a flood of tears and a certain trip to Home Depot to get chain and padlocks, it happened. And in the months leading up to my older daughter’s move I not only had to try to come to terms with my own conflicting emotions but prepare myself for the tsunami and fallout I knew was imminent for my younger daughter, the one who was being left behind by her big sister who had been her world for 13 years.
And when it hit, we very nearly drowned.
The initial separation was even worse than I’d imagined for her. The tears (more than I knew a person could make), the agony, the three-day, all-expenses paid journey through the six stages of grief; it was reminiscent of when we told her the binky fairy had to come and take away all her pacifiers and give them to other, littler children who needed them and she cried herself to sleep for several nights without her favorite comfort object, the one she’d known since birth. It was beyond heartbreaking, not only because my own was in pieces, but also because there was nothing I could do to fix hers. (And yes, I know there are technically only five stages of grief, but in this case we added one: shopping. Because obviously.)
But after a few days of pain, several pints of Ben & Jerry’s, some cute new boots and the acquisition of the long-coveted Robo Dwarf hamster (hey, it was better than a dog), life moved on for her. Was the separation easier for my college daughter? Sure it was. Of course the thought—and the actuality—of leaving her baby sister behind (the sister she practically had been mothering for 13 years, minus the “practically”) was devastating, but she was quickly consumed with new and exciting college things that distracted her while all my younger daughter had by way of distraction was the new hamster … and working her way through those pints of Ben & Jerry’s (with help). It was a bit of an unfair advantage, but really, being the younger sister comes with a lot of that, doesn’t it?
Over the past year of living five hours away from each other, their relationship has stayed just as strong, thanks in big part to technology. It hasn’t made things the same—of course it hasn’t—but it’s been their salvation. And mine. Whether it has been offering opinions on outfit choices or hairstyles, watching their favorite Sunday night show together, asking about homework or just having the other one’s face visible when they are both doing other things, FaceTiming with each other several times a week has helped bridge the 300 miles. And for me, being able to still hear (and see) them laughing together—even if it is on a screen—puts my world a little bit back in balance (not to mention keeps me away from the Ben & Jerry’s).
There’s no question it’s been a difficult transition (and yes, the second year drop-off and separation was just as bad as the first and led to even more tears and shopping … although thankfully, no more rodents), but the end of the day I know it’s a natural thing (I can’t call it good yet so we’ll stick with natural)—for my older daughter for the obvious reasons, but for my younger daughter as well. She’s grown up in the past year, and I don’t mean because she’s aged from 13 to 14 and gotten boobs. For the first time in her whole life she’s had to navigate day-to-day life without relying on her trusty leader. You know, the one I’ve ranked second to for over a decade.
A few weeks ago a friend told me how when her older daughter recently started kindergarten her 2-year-old’s vocabulary exploded. Why? Because the older sister was no longer around to be her voice. I think in Biology they call that adaptation, and that’s pretty much what happened around here. Sure, my younger daughter has always been headstrong and had her own opinions (believe me, she’s had opinions), but it’s also true that her older sister has influenced them and been her guiding force—whether she liked it or not.
Being the only child at home has been an upheaval, to put it mildly, but it’s also been an important evolution for her. She’s adjusted. She’s become more independent and more mature. She misses her sister terribly and anxiously awaits every non-screened visit, but she’s survived. They both have. And there’s value in that lesson, no matter how painful of a lesson it’s been—and still is—for all of us. Because I know now that no matter the circumstance or no matter the distance, the bond they share will remain strong … with or without working Internet.