My cell phone rang yesterday while I was battling it out with the copy machine on the second floor. I was trying to finish number 7 on a long, long work-related to-do list, and I'd been plugging away at the list all morning--with a brief 75 minute break in-between to teach a class. When I answered the phone it was Scott, checking in.
"Where's T.?" he asked, first thing. We've been married long enough for me to realize that he wasn't seriously asking the question, but I had been so absorbed in my long list of things to do, and the stubborn copy machine and malfunctioning toner cartridge (my life is all glam, I tell you), that he threw me off. My heart thudded, my stomach plunged for one horrible second. Where was T.? Was she supposed to be with me somehow? But just as my mind raced for a second, I simultaneously also realized what he had mean, in his joking way: she was on a field trip that morning. Alone. Well, alone without us, that is. We've been lucky up until now that one of us has always been able to chaperone a child's field trip. This time, though, we couldn't pull it off. T. was at a museum, doing heaven knows what, under the watchful eyes of the teachers and...someone else's parent.
Of course we knew where T. was, and that she was okay. But as Scott talked on about how he was thinking about T., and worried about her out and about on her own, riding the school bus, eating lunch in the museum's courtyard, I realized that I hadn't actively thought about where she was all morning long. I hadn't worried at all. All morning long I'd raced around at work, talking to people, getting forms signed, teaching, copying, meeting deadlines, and I hadn't once thought about T. on her field trip. At breakfast she'd chattered about it, and I packed her lunch in a brown bag for the outing, but then I got to work and whoosh! the trip was sucked right out of my head.
What did this mean?
I still remember the first time, not long after I went back to work when L. was two, that I went for a prolonged period of time not thinking about him, and what he was doing, or how I missed him. The realization hit me like a hard and unexpected wave. This is it, I thought. This is how it begins, that slow and difficult yet necessary separation that happens, between a parent and child, as the child grow more independent, and the parent begins to reclaim herself, little by little. I've always thought that a parent gives birth twice: once when they welcome the new child into their lives, and a second time when the child begins to separate, to move forward into the world, to walk off for the first time, without looking back. You feel cleaved in two, physically, and emotionally, both times.
There in the copy room, Scott's phone call brought the rush of all that back to me. I was startled, the way I remember feeling at the beach when I was a child, and I'd float on my back for awhile and lose track of time. Then I'd look around, and find myself far from shore, and the familiar beach umbrella and rumpled curves of towels and chairs were tiny, and unfamiliar, and too faraway.
Where was T.? On her field trip, of course. And I was at work. And soon I'd leave and head out into the spring sunshine. I'd stand outside my son's school and wait for him to come tumbling out, and then we'd drive on to pick up T. She'd be all a chatter about the field trip, and what she saw, and who she sat next to on the bus. My guilt would fade a little, that work had taken over my brain that morning, blanketed the parts of myself that are so used to thinking about my kids constantly, seeing the world in relationship to them, seeing everything I do through them. She'd been on a field trip, and had a great time, and I'd been at work. The world hadn't ended, she was okay. And I'd carried her with me all that day anyway, curled up in that corner of my heart, where all parents keep their children, close, for always, forever, no matter where they are.