By Susan Kushner Resnick
1) The summer before my daughter went to college, I lost a pair of prescription sunglasses, my wallet, three sets of iPod headphones (or one pair three times), a plastic bag containing all of my jewelry, the house keys over and over again, the car keys more often than that.
During one six-minute bike ride to a bakery, I lost a twenty-dollar bill and my cell phone, both of which I’d tucked into a pouch that I then forgot to zipper. I heard the phone slide onto the street as I rode out of the driveway and even wondered about the sound before pedaling on, indicating that I had also lost the ability to recognize losing something.
Some of the items reappeared, some never will. And I’ll certainly never recover a certain slice of my identity. Before this string of misplacement, I was known as the finder in my family. Whenever I heard panicked cries of “I can’t find my sneakers/cell phone/notebook,” I responded with the calm and swift discovery of said item under couch pillows, in baskets of ski hats, right there on the kitchen counter. It was always so obvious.
2) My mother never said goodbye to me when I left for college. Not properly, at least. We’d had an extremely close relationship while I was growing up, one of those in which I thought of her as my best friend and she depended on me to cure the loneliness of her frail marriage. An unhealthily enmeshed relationship, I would learn later in a therapist’s armchair.
She and my father escorted me to campus, which was the right thing to do, and she sat on my dorm bed with tears in her eyes while I unpacked. But as soon as my rainbow-striped comforter was laid upon the bed, they left. And I never saw her the same way again. She refused to visit for Parents Weekend or to pick me up at the end of freshman year. The official reasons for these abandonments were physical: acute anxiety, a bad back. But really, as soon as I stopped filling her world, she dumped me.
3) We start to lose our children the moment they’re born. You think that dramatic cutting of the cord is just for show? No, it’s a psychological necessity, a vital statement: this person is separate, that connection was purely biological, you do not own this being. The threat and reality of that loss-to-be builds throughout their lives. They will go, they will go, this won’t last, a sadistic poem whispers from the back stairs of our hearts.
Senior year of high school is the worst, particularly if a child is moving away for school after graduation. Besides going through all the tension and fighting inherent in the college application and waiting process, all parties are preparing to separate. It causes the kid to lash out, a psychological defense termed If I Hate You, I Can’t Miss You. The parents go gooey at every occasion: the last Halloween at home, the last birthday, the last teacher’s night at school, bittersweet even if you always loathed those nights. An 18-year-long chapter is about to end.
4) My mother and I never fought when I was growing up. Then we always fought. Why are you so angry, she would ask me. What did I do? In the movie version of this conversation, I would wail, You left me! Forgiveness and repair could begin. We would again become best friends. In real life, I didn’t figure out why I was so angry until she’d left me for good. Where’s the peace in forgiving a dead person?
My daughter and I didn’t fight horribly, but we fought. I was always saying the wrong thing. She always knew better. The usual stuff. It seemed healthy. I was the mother and she was the daughter. We were not best friends.
5) Some of the items reappeared. Some never will.
6) After all that senior year melodrama, I thought I was ready. It was time. I’d done my job. They say the time spent raising a child flies by. I say only if you’re doing it wrong. To me, those 18 years felt like 18 years: joyful and rich and full of the greatest love I’d ever felt, but also tedious and arduous and full of sacrifice.
And I was ready for her to grow up but not for the relationship to end. Because I was certain that was about to happen. In the experience that was my life, this juncture was where the mother-daughter relationship dead-ended.
7) My daughter was ready, too. I don’t even remember seeing her much that summer. She had a boyfriend, a gang, a job at a candy store. She was setting her own buoys. I was steering around them. Did I mention that I was spending a lot of time near the ocean? We rented a beach house, which is where I kept losing all that stuff.
She came to the beach mostly under duress. It wasn’t her thing. It was my thing. It took her away from her friends and whatever they were doing to commemorate the final summer of childhood. I had taken the bold step of doing something that made me happier than it made her. I felt guilty about that all the time. Another charm of motherhood.
8) We went to New York when my daughter was five. Just the two of us. We stayed in The Plaza back when it was almost affordable for regular people to do that. Our tiny room had tall ceilings and free robes. She ate her first raspberry in the Palm Court and posed for a photo in front of Eloise’s portrait. We marched to the top of the Empire State Building. A princess at a Fifth Avenue toy store painted her nails the color of cherry blossoms. We saw The Sound of Music in a Broadway theatre, then took a cab back to the hotel. My dazzled companion left her Playbill on the seat of the cab and even now, years after the princesses left Fifth Avenue, she’s still mad at herself for losing it.
9) Are you sad she’s leaving? Someone asked.
I don’t feel sad, I said. I think I’m OK.
The part I left out was that I wasn’t feeling anything.
10) You know how you say to teenagers all the time that if they’re ever too wasted to drive – or their designated driver is – that they should call and you’ll come pick them up, no questions asked? It actually happens sometimes, but I thought such a call wasn’t to be part of our story. Until it was.
Days before she was set to leave, a stereo speaker fell on my daughter’s foot during a party. Her toe was bleeding. She couldn’t drive home.
“Can’t you have a friend drive your car?” I asked.
“No,” she said. And I knew: this was the call.
I raced to the house. Her wasted friends carried her down the porch stairs, helped her into my car and spoke to me about the EMT training they’d tried to employ. She was bloody and shaking and on her way to the emergency room.
11) I knew I could take the blow of losing her. I’d been tightening my abdominals like Houdini since her birth. But how would I fare after? Houdini died, they say, because he’d been ruined inside by one of those punches.
12) She doesn’t like blood, especially her own. Or needles, which sometimes make her black out. Crisis is my forté. I was “on” in that ER. I did my best to keep the patient calm and warm, to bully the medical staff into speeding things up. They numbed and drilled and drained that toe, then sent her home on crutches. “How can I start college on crutches?” she cried. I reminded her that she started preschool with a cast on her tiny arm. My parents had been babysitting while my husband and I were on a date. She tumbled gently off the swing set and cracked her bone. My parents didn’t realize the seriousness of the injury so they tended to it mostly with kisses. My mother thought that wrapping the limb in a security blanket was enough.
13) I have two children so my daughter’s departure to college would only mean a lopsided nest, not an empty one. My son had slept at a friend’s house an hour away on the night of the toe smash. He was supposed to be dropped off by another mother at the end of a day of mini-golf. After returning from the ER at 4:30 a.m., I was looking forward to a day on the couch.
When your kids become teenagers, when they stop crawling into your bed at night and start getting their own cups of water, you can finally sleep through the night again. The drawback is that you get soft. When my son called midday and said he nneeded me to pick him up right away because he’d thrown up, I drove with the reflexes of a zombie. We may forget the pain of childbirth, but I doubt any of us forgets the agony of sleep deprivation. The thickness of head, the numbness of mind – it all returned, only worse because I was so unaccustomed to functioning without sleep. I felt like a rookie again.
14) I believe the universe gives us what we need. Or is it our mothers? Maybe from the place where the dead go mine was offering a gift. I expected memories during the week before I sent my daughter out into the world. Instead, I got a few days of time reversal. The chance to go back. The luxury of seeing what I was about to lose.
The toe turned out to be badly infected. My husband and I took turns getting up at night to give her pain medicine, just as we had taken turns Ferberizing her eighteen years earlier. We reminded her how to butt-scoot up the stairs. I helped with grooming.
She couldn’t stand in the shower to wash her hair.
“Bend back,” I said, as I knelt in the bathtub and she sat on the tile floor, an arrangement that allowed me to scrub her head without seeing her naked. She leaned toward me instead of away for the first time in many years. Then she closed her eyes, smiled tranquilly, and thanked me. She said she didn’t think I’d ever washed her hair before. A mother can’t count the number of times she rinses the suds out of her little girl’s hair, but kids don’t remember the mundane events of their child- hoods. For my daughter, this was a first.
15) We drove down to college with the 18-year-old packed tightly in the back seat between tall piles of suitcases that made her look smaller than she is. She slept most of the way. We peeked back periodically to make sure she was still breathing. It was like the drive home from the hospital the day after she was born. It was as if we were returning her.
16) I did the dorm scene farewell right, waiting until she told us to leave, watching from the parking lot while she hobbled away to start her life. At home, I was bereft. Her room was so empty, all its surfaces flat and hard without her mess adding texture. The house was too quiet, too big, too full of testosterone now that I was outnumbered by a three to one penis/vagina ratio: boy child, boy husband, boy dog.
Even my body made sure I felt the loss. My ear hurt when I breathed, as if something sharp was rolling through an empty tunnel. I had trouble sleeping, so I stayed up alone and worked, as if I were taking her place doing late night homework. Or waiting for her to come home by curfew.
I lay on my bed and remembered her as a little girl dashing into our room, her wispy hair barely clearing the bed frame. That’s when I cried.
17) I wish I could ask my mother about her first weeks without me. Did she cry? Did she try to say goodbye? Or were those backaches and psychic pains her body’s way of telling her to feel the loss, their continuation a symptom of her refusal to do so?
Had she said goodbye, would we have eventually gotten to hello?
18) I found the jewelry, not the sunglasses. I retrieved the phone, but never the money. I learned to keep my headphones in one place.
My daughter and I settled into a long-distance relationship. During her second winter break at home, we went for an entire month without a fight. I laugh with her more than with any other woman in my life, but we are not best friends. Nor are we lost to each other.
Author’s Note: I started writing this piece the summer I began losing things, but after taking a few notes, I saved it in the “to be finished” file along with many other essays in progress. I often find, with essays and with books, that I know there’s a story there even if I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve learned to be patient with myself, a new skill that may be the result of 19 years of parenting or just a happy symptom of aging. A year and a half after taking the first notes, as I was bragging about the fight-free month with my daughter, I figured out the story. After all that brewing, it only took three days of writing and revision to complete.
Susan Kushner Resnick is the author of YOU SAVED ME, TOO: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting, and Swearing in Yiddish, a memoir published by Globe Pequot Press in October 2012. Her work has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Parents, and Utne Reader, among other publications. She teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University and lives in Massachusetts.
illustration by Kristen Solecki