How To Say Goodbye: A Lesson From My Daughter

We weren’t assigned seats next to each other on the flight that would fly us to my daughter’s new home for the next four years. We both had aisle seats, which we usually prefer, one in front of the other.  But this time I desperately wanted/needed to sit by her.  I asked the lady seated next to my daughter if she would mind switching her window seat for my aisle seat. “You know, I really do prefer a window seat,” she said. “Ok, then,” I said with my eyes to my daughter. “It’s not like I’m taking my daughter to college for the first time or anything,” I mumbled under my breath, and sat down feeling deflated. But without hesitation, my daughter started talking to me through the seat that separated us, sharing a funny story about something silly her “most adorable” camper did this summer. I leaned into the aisle, twisted my body and craned my neck to make eye contact with her. She hoisted her computer up and over the back of my seat to show me the countless pictures she had taken over the summer.

“I’m going to switch seats with you,” the woman said to me as she was already standing with her belongings in her hand.  “Thank, you. Thank you so much,” I said as I moved back to take the window seat next to my daughter.  We laughed and talked some more. We took a short jaunt down memory lane until she told me she was tired and done talking. I watched her close her eyes. I saw her as a little girl. The memories kept surfacing and resurfacing in my mind’s eye. The feelings of being pregnant with her, cradling her as a baby, clinging onto her hand when she learned to walk, holding her and stroking her hair when she cried, and even grabbing her arm a little too tightly a few times when I was upset with her came flooding back to me. In that moment, she leaned her head on my shoulder. I stroked her shiny, brown hair. A tsunami arose in my chest that came from the innermost depths of my soul and encompassed my entire being. The water came pouring out of my eyes. I truly did not know how I would make the tears stop.

How can this be the culmination of 18 years?!  How can it hurt so much even when she is doing what my husband and I have raised her to do? How can it be that the start of her next, exciting life chapter feels so excruciatingly painful for me? I leaned my head on her head and I took in her smell and the feeling of her presence. I knew that her presence in my life was about to change…pretty dramatically.

Over the past 19 years of life (actually, her 19th birthday is next week, and will be her first birthday that I won’t be with her), Sophie has taught me how to let go. Her independent spirit has given me a lot of practice in the art of saying goodbye, which has included: the ability to hold back my tears until she couldn’t see me (okay, I couldn’t always do that); give her that “last” hug, and then separate from her, by allowing her to pull away, and then turn and walk away from me, while I worked hard to turn myself away and walk the opposite direction (resisting the urge to turn back around and run to her to give her one more hug). I have done it countless times:  when she started school, skipped off to sleepovers, begged to go to a two-week sleep-away camp at the age of 8, took trips with her grandparents, boarded planes and buses to visit friends in other states, when she spent part of a summer in Israel and when she spent the past two entire summers working as a counselor at an overnight camp.

But even as the goodbyes didn’t seem to get much easier, I always knew she was coming home.

But not this time.

Ok, I know. That sounds extremely dramatic. And it is. Of course she will come home: over her school breaks and possibly over summer breaks (unless she continues to work at summer camp or another job out of state). But those times are the exception, rather than the rule. The majority of her days and nights will not be spent in my house, in her bed, with her siblings at our dinner table.  When I feel this sense of loss come over me, which sort of feels like someone took a scoop out of my heart with an ice cream scooper, I do have conversations with myself about perspective. My message to myself is, “Hey! Your daughter is alive and healthy and thriving!  She is going to college, not Juvie! This is not some kind of terrible tragedy. She is off to have a wonderful college experience! You should be so proud! You will see her, you will talk to her and you will be in each other’s lives!” Yes. Yes. Yes. And I am grateful. I really am.

But there are many different types of losses that we as mothers endure with our children, and I pray that we all experience these types of “letting go” losses and none that are truly catastrophic.  The letting go kind of loss is actually more about recalibrating the relationship than losing it. However, I have realized that I am not exactly sure how to make this relationship shift, within myself and between my daughter and me.

My relationship with my daughter has been one of the most pivotal and powerful relationships I have ever had in my life. It would take me tens of thousands of words to explain why, but as any mother understands, the human being who turns you into a mother, holds an extremely significant place in your heart.  And now I need to figure out how to do this relationship from afar.

As much as Sophie knows that she will always have a place in our home, I know her sights are now set elsewhere. And I am happy for her. And I know she is ready.

We spent a few days in Ann Arbor helping her get her room ready, schlepping back and forth to Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond, taking her and her friends to lunches and dinners. And then, when we knew it was time, she taught me how to say goodbye, yet again.

Last night we brought her to her dorm before heading back to our hotel to get some sleep before our flight home this morning.  We only got as far as the parking lot in front of her dorm. “You guys don’t have to come up. I am okay. Really,” she said in a very sincere way.  “O.k., Soph, I guess we have to do this,” I said. My husband and I each hugged her. And then she hugged us each one more time. I gave her the card I had written her earlier that day and told her to read it later. “I love you, Mom.” “Oh, I love you more than you will ever know, Soph.” "Take care of you, Sophie," my husband said.

And then she did it. She pulled away, she turned and she walked slowly to door of her dorm. But I didn’t turn. I didn’t move. I stood there and watched her this time. I watched her walk confidently and happily to enter the next phase of her life. She opened the door to her dorm, and glanced back in our direction. Then the door shut.

And new doors opened…

goodbye soph