The other day my dentist asked me if I had plans for the summer. I told him I’d be driving my daughter to college in upstate New York, by myself. He told me that his daughter went to college in DC. They shipped her stuff ahead of time and dropped her off at Midway Airport. He described the experience as surreal. “We just went to the airport, and then she didn’t live with us anymore.” As I was leaving the office he said, “Listen, if she starts being difficult, even mean, don’t worry about it. She might need to pull away a little before she leaves, so it doesn’t hurt so much.”
I think about the “fight” we had a few weeks ago.
She was cleaning her room. In her view, she keeps her room clean. In my view, not so much, but she keeps the door to her room shut and so we rarely discuss it. On this day, she went deep. She pulled the trundle bed out and vacuumed not just underneath the bed, but the trundle mattress itself. She asked to get rid of the trundle. She declared the trundle the reason she is congested. Because she can’t see the dust trapped by the trundle, it sits there and makes her nose stuffy. She isn’t wrong about that, but we have a difference of opinion on the reasonable solution. My solution is to clean her room more often. Her solution is to get rid of the trundle because when she needs to clean, she has to move things around to pull it out and that is ridiculous.
I pointed out that she might also want to do something about the very visible dust on top of her headboard, the dust that doesn’t require her to move furniture. I pointed out that her light fixture was also kind of gross. I pointed out that we had no place else to store a trundle and mattress, and no way to give away or sell a trundle and mattress without a bed, and that she was moving in 6 months and could probably deal with it. She pointed out that I was in her room and should leave. When I think about the fights I had with my own mother, the fights I hear that my friends have with their teenagers, I know I am lucky. This is what passes for a fight with us.
Later on the same day as the dentist appointment I too was coincidentally at Midway airport waiting to go to DC. A young man sat near me and asked me questions about boarding. “I’ve never traveled without my parents,” he said. “I just want to make sure I don’t miss anything. I already had to throw out my toothpaste because I didn’t know you couldn’t bring a full-size one.” He was a college student going to a conference. I walk him through the boarding process and make sure he knows how he’s getting to his hotel once he arrives in DC. I tell him my daughter will be going to college in the Fall. Although I don’t say anything else about her he says, “From March to May is SOOO hard. Just tell her to push through, she’ll be so much happier once high school is over.”
Waiting in line to board the plane an older man makes small talk with me. He is wearing a large belt buckle with four turquoise stones in it. It is the kind of thing my father used to wear. My father had a serious fall recently and is not wearing pants with belts much these days. He wears sweatpants and pajama bottoms. The last time I was home I reorganized his dresser so that everything he can put on easily was easy to reach. He fell again last week. I tell the man that I like his belt. “Did you buy it in New Mexico?” I ask. “No, a little store in Pittsburgh. You know, I saw it one day and liked it, but I noticed it had this spot on one of the stones, so I didn’t buy it. Then I saw it again a few weeks later, but I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy it until the third time I saw it and I’ve been wearing it for 30 years now.”
He asks me if I’m going home and I tell him I live here and am going to DC for a meeting. He tells me that he grew up in walking distance from Midway. He met his wife when they were sixteen years old and he used to ride his bike to her house through the neighborhood. They got married when they were 21. They live in Maryland now. He has a son in the Chicago suburbs and when he’s in town he likes to go back to their houses and make sure they’re still standing. The way he talks about his wife, I’m not sure if she is still alive. I’m relieved when we board and the flight attendant says “It’s open seating you can sit anywhere,” and the man replies “Can I sit by my wife?” “Well, if she’ll have you,” the attendant replies. “That might be an issue,” he replies. His wife is waiting for him a few rows back and I am unexpectedly happy to see her.
After my daughter and I fought about her room I told her that when you are ready to go, ready to move, ready to change, it is painful not to do so. I told her that the bed was not the problem. I told her the dust was not the problem. I told her that I am not the problem and she is not the problem. The problem is that she is ready to go. She cannot shed her skin fast enough and so it grows tighter and tighter around her feeling more and more uncomfortable. She said yes, but she should have gotten a full-size bed from the beginning. I told her she didn’t know that when she was 10 and also, I lived in a room with rainbow wallpaper until I left home at 17. My bedroom is now my mother’s study. She has re-wallpapered it, but a rainbow decal still clings to one window.
What I did not tell my daughter is that leaving doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in stages. There are only two stories in the world, someone is arriving and someone is leaving.