I Did Not Cry
Today was the first day of school, and it’s tradition for me to drop off the kids and then bawl my eyes out. Three years ago, when my son transitioned from kindergarten to first grade, I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot. The second grade teacher on parent duty had to pat me on the shoulder and tell me to keep my sunglasses on so I wouldn’t upset the students.
But today I didn’t cry. Part of that is because the schedule is different this year: My son actually started school last week, and my daughter was with me when we dropped him off. (At his specific request, I did not exit the vehicle.)
“You’re not going to CRY, are you?” my daughter asked from the back seat, a sweet combination of comfort and amusement. So I put my sunglasses on, swiped away an errant tear, and spent the day enjoying her company instead of my usual first day ritual, which is to take myself off to the hill where I hike. That day, when her brother started school, the girl and I were talking about something in the future. And I said, without thinking “That will be six years. Right around the time you start college.”
“Six years,” she echoed, and we looked at each other, a bit aghast. More than two-thirds of my time with her is through — it was light years ago that she was a six-year-old, starting school herself, and light years beyond that a tiny newborn, when what seemed like unending time spooled before us.
But today it was her turn to start school, a new place where I know she will be happy, since I have researched it as only an over-protective, ex-reporter can do. And still it was more than bittersweet, dropping her off at the door where she’ll spend most of her waking days, in a sea of teachers and other students I may only ever come to know by name.
“You’re not going to CRY, are you?” she asked from the back seat, amused and a little panicked. “Because if YOU cry, I’ll cry.” And so I put on my oversized sunglasses once more and assured her I would not cry. I offered to walk her in on this first day, and she was willing to let me, but the boy was bellowing “GO GO GO! She’ll be fine! I have to get to school too! Don’t cry!” And so I let her go. I drove off, watching in the rear view mirror as we moved away from each other, she growing smaller and smaller in the distance.
And then I took the boy to school, where we met up with one of his friends, and they played ball in the back seat until it was time to go in. And then at last, in the sudden silence, I drove to my hill. There are other places that are more beautiful, that offer a longer trail or a more scenic one, but this spot is so tightly wound into the fabric of my children’s childhood that there is no other place for me on days when I need peace or comfort. In my mind the hill is always the green of springtime, with short new grass and robins overhead. And today, my first time there in several months, that picture is what I was expecting.
But of course it was different. It’s September now, not May. The grass is high, almost to my chest, turning brown along the edges, ready for mowing. The tall grass tunnels in, narrowing your options, making it more difficult to choose another way. In past years I’ve run to the top, but today I took my time, winded by the humidity and a summer spent choosing beach walks over pounding along the sidewalks. It was supposed to rain, and half the hill was cast in shadow. When I reached the top, I sat and thought about all the times I’ve done this route, and how often I’ve had a baby or a toddler or small child along with me. And I might have shed a tear or two then.
But it is hard to be melancholy with a dog, especially one who has had to be polite and on-leash for most of the summer and suddenly finds himself with room to run. The Slobbering Beast stretched out his legs and spronged through the tall grass like a rabbit, urging me on with friendly persistence until at last I got up and took the path toward the woods, the trail curving along ahead of us, dark and mysterious, with secrets of its own for us to discover just around the bend.
That is a happy beast! Animals are so good at pulling us into the present. So are babies.
This is a big year for us. Molly graduates nursing, Frank graduates high school, and I turn the big 5-0. I, too, could be drawn towards melancholy. But I held a grand-niece the other day, and it’s impossible to feel down with that new life, the emotion in her parents’ eyes, the way she warmed my right hand by filling her diaper. Your hill sounds like a good place for storing events into long-term memory, but it’s not a coincidence, perhaps, that it’s easier to hike down.
That is a big year, Jan. I’m so glad you got to hold the baby — the picture of the three of you was beautiful. And I agree — babies are the cure for almost anything. (Especially, I hasten to add, when they are not yours.)