Mia’s with her seventh grade class on a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s a big deal, and she’s been looking forward to it all school year. We spent a good portion of Sunday getting ready for it; she pulled out a checklist and studiously checked each box with a big pink marker as we assembled all the necessary items. Sheets, pillow, several changes of clothes (some of which, we’re warned, we must be ready to consign to their demise in the mud pits), two pairs of shoes. More and more.
I watched her carefully pack her big duffel bag, and it was one of those moments when it was clear how much older she’s getting. She’s twelve now, nearly halfway down the road to thirteen. Her body is developing, and so is her mind. I see wisdom taking root: she makes difficult decisions, and she accepts responsibility for things it would be easier not to. I’m fiercely proud of her, as are all of us whose children are crossing the border into adulthood. And watching her that night, preparing to leave me for a few days as she engages in her own adventures, I was reminded that it’ll only be a few more years before she’s packing a similar bag to go to college, or to her own new home, or where ever it is she decides to go when it’s time.
It’s bittersweet, of course. You feel pride for her, but if you’re honest you indulge in a little pride in yourself, too: despite every catastrophic mistake and every wrong turn you’ve made as a parent, she’s doing it. She’s getting smarter and wiser and funnier, and now she’s making these little trial runs into the world without you. Look at her go.
It’s sad, but it’s right. It’s your job to teach her to leave you.
And then she puts her stuffed animal in the suitcase. Not her favorite — her favorite is also her cat’s favorite, and she leaves that here so the cat won’t get lonely. She takes another instead. She fits it snugly in there. She tells me other girls bring them too. And I see at that moment all these girls, shortly to be riding the bus together and bunking in the cabins together, each standing at the cusp of the world. Every fundamental thing changing around them and inside them at once in huge earthquakes of identity. And they pack their stuffed animals because, after all, they are little girls yet.
Later, when I’m tucking her in and she’s worried about whether or not she’ll be able to sleep through the anticipation, she asks me for a favor.
“Will you write me a letter?”
“A letter? By the time it gets there, you’ll be home again,” I say. Not getting it.
“No Dad, a letter I can take with me. So I can read it at night when I get homesick.”
“Of course I will,” I say.
And I do. I go out into the living room, where Mia will shortly make another appearance for a glass of water because the anticipation does make it hard to sleep, and I get a pen and paper and write her a letter, telling her the things I think she might like to hear when it’s dark and she’s the only one awake, lonely for home.
The next morning as she checks her list again I hand it to her. She doesn’t look at it, folds it in half and slips it safely into the bag.
“Thanks, Dad,” she says.
Then we’re out the door, on the way to the car. It’s early enough to still be dark. She moves ahead of me, eager to be on the move, dragging her huge wheeled duffel along.
I’m right behind her.