We’re in the car or, as my kids have come to think of it: the machine they sit inside to listen to their favorite songs as the world rolls by. Their interest in music grows almost as fast as they do these days. They ask to hear their favorites before we even reach the car door, shouted song requests taking up the space that calls of ‘shotgun!’ will a few years from now.
“Who sings this song? And what’s it called?” my three-year-old asks the back of my head.
“It’s by Journey, and it’s called ‘I’ll Be Alright Without You,’” I tell him. And then, without thinking I add, “which is something I’ll never say to either of you!”
My six-year-old giggles but I can hear seeds of embarrassment. Her brother, who often misses things while lost in the music, has to ask again.
“What did you say it’s called?”
“It’s called ‘I’ll Be Alright Without You.’” In the echo of my daughter’s giggles, I’m now questioning myself. The truth in what was meant to be a sweet, funny little quip rings in my ears. I decide to leave it there. But kids never let you off that easy.
“What was the second part you said?” I’m caught red handed between the child who heard me and the child who caught a word, maybe two.
“I said that I’ll never say that to either of you…”
“Yes you will,” my daughter replies. She sounds so sure. But I wonder.
My mind speeds forward, away from the car and the song and the windshield wipers pushing sheets of cold, morning rain. I see us standing in the courtyard of my freshman dorm. I’m flashing forward, not back, but that spot is the only image I have for the kind of goodbye my brain is trying to conjure. That courtyard stands in for the eventual courtyard at the eventual college where, many years that already feel like minutes from now, I will say goodbye to my children.
What will I say to them? Surely, I won’t weep the title of an old Journey song. Because, of course, whether or not I am all right without them shouldn’t ever be a question when they’re leaving. The way my heart aches when they leave for a day of school and flat out stops beating at the thought of them leaving for a semester, isn’t a burden I should ever put on their shoulders. But it is one that weighs heavily on mine.
For the time that my life has intertwined with theirs, I've been convincing them that they'll be all right without me.
Kneeling down to eye level with them in the threshold of the preschool playground, I promised them they'd be ok. I kissed their hands and reminded them that I’m always with them, even as I walked away. Every time they run off without me, happy and confident and free, they swell with pride and the swelling never shrinks all the way back down. They stay puffed up like that, little balloons full and happy and always readying themselves to float away. But lately, I feel myself deflating, as though I'm pushing out confidence like air from me into them and there isn’t enough to go around.
I wasn’t always this way. In the days when I was never alone, when my body sustained theirs, when they would be so far from all right without me, the thought of leaving them for a while didn’t reverberate in my heart. It’s not that I didn’t want to be with my children as newborns and infants but sometimes I didn’t want to be with them all the time. Submerged in a brand new phase of life and still trying to figure out the correct breathing rhythm, I looked forward to the day when they’d pack bags and head off to be responsible for themselves. That’s where the air was.
But somewhere along the way that changed. Was it these past few months of gap-toothed smiles or now, as the gaps are disappearing? Or could it be the way he still mispronounces his words but she doesn’t and I know it’s only a matter of time? Was there a moment or an event? Or have I just learned too much and done too much?
I’d never have been satisfied, just holding my breath and biding time, so I learned how to thrive instead. I went all in and now I’m in deep. Now I revel in the feeling of near suffocation so much that I seek it out after too much fresh air. And yet, there is, as with all things, a balance.
I want to believe I’ll be all right without them. I want them to know they’ll be all right without me. I want to leave those words unsaid because they are so obvious and true.
Behind me, they explore all of the ways and times we are without each other from school to play dates and birthday parties, making concrete and literal what I’ve blown up to into big and scary. Before I know it, we’re talking about days of the week, morning kisses and afternoon reunions, and someone is requesting a new song. That’s fine by me because I never really liked this song anyway. In fact, I think I’m in the mood to just dance.