My Baby and Me
With the first gentle flutter of new life in her body, a mother begins a lifelong process of letting go. The sublime pleasure of gazing into her baby’s eyes for the first time is tempered with the deep knowledge that the inevitable separation has already commenced. A mother hears, as perhaps no other can, the budding language of independence in every first gurgle, giggle and coo. In that instant she recognizes that henceforth she will simultaneously celebrate and mourn every milestone in her child’s life, understanding that each step forward in a child’s life is a step away from the safety of a mother’s grasp.
I remember firmly holding my daughter’s hand shortly after she learned to walk as we carefully traversed an orchard carpeted with fallen apples. With each step her little ankles would twist and her slight body weight shift to accommodate the undulating landscape beneath her feet. Halfway across, she tried to pull away from me, certain she could do it alone. The more tightly I held her hand, the more firmly she tugged to get away. She finally broke free and crossed her arms closely against chest her in a stubborn refusal to let me grab hold. I gasped as she stumbled ahead without me, afraid she would fall…perhaps more afraid she wouldn’t. I have never felt so abandoned, so utterly irrelevant in my life.
Until now. Standing on the threshold of my daughter’s high school graduation, I feel fate nudging me further out of the picture of her life. I am at a loss to explain how the eighteen years since her birth have collapsed into what registers as mere minutes on my internal hourglass. How, I wonder to myself, did we go from “Me can do” one day to “Where are the car keys?” the very next. From, “Mamma” to “MO-ther!” in seemingly a single breath.
I have investigated several possible culprits, including Flintstones vitamins, iron-fortified bread products and Disney on Ice, all of which I suspect of unnaturally hastening the maturation process. And while a strong case can be made for each of those, I lay the bulk of the blame at the feet of her orthodontist. He may not have struck the first match, but he certainly poured gasoline on the fire.
“What have you done to my baby?” I screamed at him a few years ago when he removed her braces. “Look at her! How could you do this?”
He stood there speechless, his silence a blaring admission of his guilt. It was hard to deny the facts in front of his face. I had brought him a perfectly nice little girl with bright blue eyes, skinned knees and a happy smile full of teeth going every which way. Three years and a few thousand dollars later, he handed me back this young woman. Eyes like azure pools, framed with thick lashes, smooth shapely legs and a perfectly aligned smile that fairly simmered with budding womanhood.
Now, as both my daughter’s budding womanhood and my parental panic threaten to burst into full bloom, I try desperately to remember the lesson learned in the apple orchard so many years ago. I must let go of her hand, let her make her own way, I silently repeat as she and I take a tour of her prospective college campus. I force myself to loosen my grip and, exerting Herculean effort, manage to stay at least two full steps away from her side throughout the day. It feels as if someone is pulling my heart out through my chest. I can’t let her go, I think. The cost is too great. It will hurt too much.
And then, unexpectedly, life showers me with tender mercy. As I am crossing the green with a group of parents, my daughter breaks with the pack of students and makes her way toward me. In full view of other teenagers, she walks up to me, links her arm through mine, puts her head on my shoulder and whispers, “I love it here…and, Mom, I love you too.”
My heart stops. I am afraid to move, afraid to speak, afraid some uncool motherly word or mannerism will betray me and break the spell. Inside I am screaming, “My baby still loves me! Did you hear that?” But on the outside I know I must be the picture of restraint. With all the feigned nonchalance I can muster, I discreetly squeeze her arm and reply, “I love you too, sweetie.”
The pain in my heart eases a little. The sting of separation is at least temporarily soothed. And as I watch her run back to her group, through a veritable forest of Georgia pines, I swear the sweet scent of apple blossoms suddenly fills the air.
Lee Gaitan has worn many hats in her 25 years as a professional communicator, from public relations writer and television host to stand-up comedienne and educator. She is the author of two books, Falling Flesh Just Ahead, and the recently released My Pineapples Went to Houston—Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry. She has also authored a chapter in the bestselling book, The Divinity of Dogs, and is a blogger for The Huffington Post, Midlife Boulevard and The Good Men Project. She lives in suburban Atlanta with her husband and dog. Connect with her at www.leegaitan.com; https://www.facebook.com/mypineappleswenttohouston; www.twitter.com/LGPineapple.