“Mommy!” he squeals. His eyes light up. His cheeks get puffy in a way that looks slightly stiff. Muscles engaging that have lied dormant all day long.
I lift him to my hip and his arms clasp tightly around my neck. As I talk with his teachers, trying to fill in the blanks since his curls last tickled my shoulder (hours I’ve spent praying that those blanks are filled with more than just tears), he continues to squeal, though more quietly now, right into my ear as if he is sharing a secret between just the two of us. “Mommy!” My name seems to flow from his mouth without effort or thought, fueled by an intoxicating mixture of delight and relief. He squishes his face against my cheek as if to squeeze apart the distance he’s felt for hours.
“How was your day, bud?”
“I cwied and cwied and cwied por you Mommy.”
She breaks into a smile when we finally lock onto one another across the huge and crowded space where I feel awkward and unsure and, honestly, quite lost but where she already walks around with a comfort and a confidence that looks brand new and also perfectly placed. The air smells like school in a way that I haven’t experienced in years, decades, and I push through random childhood memories as kids swarm around. She runs towards me and I pick her up instinctively, long, lanky, almost six-year-old legs stretching down to dangling feet that reach my knees. She is somehow still so easy to lift, very likely because she wants to be lifted and she knows she is too big now. So she makes it easy on me.
I can tell by her bounce and her lightness that she has smiled today. She has laughed. Her eyes have ignited, a half dozen times? A full dozen? More? I’ll never know for sure but I’m becoming better at deciphering her afternoon mood, deconstructing it and then piecing it back together into a picture of her day. She’ll only share pieces when I catch lightening in a bottle, usually right before sleep. But I am so anxious for details I can’t help myself from digging as we clasp hands and walk to the car.
“How was your day, love?”
“Second day better than the first?”
I worried about them both as these days approached. But I worried about her more. Brand new school. New kids. New routines. Leaving something so amazing and comfortable behind to launch into something new and completely unknown. I expected her muscles to remember the way they clung to me back when she was three and small. I expected drop offs to be hard, the way they were then. I prepared myself for weeks of struggle and tears and intensity of emotion. She is my small one. My quiet one. My one who is slow to adjust and jump in and sparkle. I can’t keep up with the pace of growth, so much so that I’ve almost given up, so I prepared for the little girl she used to be.
“I don’t want to go to school!” he wails as I set his breakfast in front of him. “I cwy por you.” He moans as I pour another cup of coffee. I pull him onto my lap and I spoon Cheerios into his mouth because in an hour he’ll have to be big and brave but here he can always be my baby. I manage to distract him for a bit but when it is time to go he demands to be carried. Everywhere. So I do. With him on my hip we help sister into her backpack. We gather our things while I struggle because he, too, is too big to be carried. He is heavy and I’m embarrassed to say that I get winded by the weight of him. But his whining hurts me and I know he will spend the day in sadness and that breaks my heart. So I ignore the mud stains on my pants in the place where his feet bounce against my legs and I hush the pain in my arm and we trudge along.
She is ready and by the door. Complaints about carrying her things have disappeared and that backpack with the butterflies and the flashing lights finds a happy home on her shoulders. She even climbs into the car with it all on her own and I swear it’s a morning-routine miracle. First grade, I admire your work so far.
It took three days for me to realize I had prepared all wrong. Three days before I realized I was investing my time in the wrong place. Three days before I even began to shift. And then, of course, the shift had to be slight. Slightly less attention on her, less worry, less preparation. Slightly more on him. But not too much shifting. Can’t mess up her good thing and can’t smother him either.
He sobs as I unbuckle his belts and lift him out of the car. His head burrows into my shoulder as we walk and I know they can already hear him coming, down on the playground. He sobs words into the air as if he believes that they will have the effect of taking us both home. “I don’t want to go to school.” “I don’t want you to leave.” So I kneel next to him and I tell him to squeeze. And he does. I squeeze back and cover his wet face in kisses. His teachers are so sweet and he walks willingly onto the playground, no peeling him off of me like we used to do with his sister. But he is still sobbing.
As we walk away from the gate, his wails only becoming slightly less loud in my ears as we go, I pull in gulps of air. “I love this school.” I breathe out, thankful for the people and the familiarity and the way I know he will be so very cared for until I come back.
“I don’t” she replies lightly, “because I don’t go here anymore and I like my new school better.”
Her words knock me over but I instinctively smile. I know she still loves this place and always will. But here we are on day three and her sights have risen to the new heights she is traveling towards. She’s walking there bravely and confidently and actually she bounces more than walks. And I worry about them both a little bit less.