Friday, May 16, 2008

A Journey, Not A Trip

Here you go — you take it from here. These are the words I need to say to Renee, but I don’t know how to say them. I’ve spent years dreaming, teaching, lecturing, worrying, leading, pushing, loving and nagging to reach this moment. It is time to watch her back as she moves down the road of life. I will continue dreaming, worrying, and loving. I still want to tell. Now I will have to listen. I still want to lecture. Now I will have to suggest. Everything is changing and I’m not ready.

I know other mothers go through this. It’s August and all over the country, millions of mothers are saying goodbye to their freshmen children. But this is my Renee and she hasn’t been mine long enough.

It was a lot cooler that day in April when she and her little sister came through the front door the first time. She already knew our adopted brood of four from school, but she latched onto the oldest, Michelle, and declared her the best friend. She gallantly stacked her few clothes in the drawers I showed her and arranged the stuffed koala we gave her on her new bed all the while bathing the room with non-stop chatter. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone talk that fast.

She thought she was hiding her fear. But, I could see it in the slight quake of her fingers as she brushed her hair from her face. I could hear it in the accelerating pitch of her voice and the too-loud laugh. Thirteen is a terrible age to get a new family. So much of her childhood already belonged to one of the four mothers before me. I only had five years to make her mine. That day my hand probably quaked a bit, too.

Today, the heat of August beats down as we prepare to pack the van. Michelle has come over and brought her son Mark with her to help Renee and to say goodbye. None of the other kids are going with us. We are driving all the way from Iowa to California by way of Oregon, and the thought of thousands of miles of captive summer in a car full of teenagers makes me shudder. No, this is our time with Renee alone.

Holding Mark and standing to one side, I smile as she and Michelle rearrange the boxes and baskets and suitcases and bags again. Renee has poured over supply lists for weeks. She has searched the Internet for dorm ideas. She has talked to everyone she knew who had ever been to college. She’s made lists of must-haves, like-to-haves, and wishes. Then there were lists of her lists. She has even called the college to find out how much square footage of space she would have in her dorm room and then measured her stuff. So like her. I remember the day I found her folding the dirty laundry. “It looks neater that way, Mom,” she said.

She’s asking Michelle if she is forgetting anything. I so want to tell her it this isn’t a big deal. They have Wal-Mart in California. She knows what it takes to maintain her daily existence. But there is more to it than that. This is her leap to independence and she wants to make sure she has everything she needs before she leaps. Once while she was fretting, I opened my mouth to tell her that “you never have everything you need,” but some things are only learned by experience so I coughed and cleared my throat instead.

I sit down on the stairs to wait and watch the packing, smiling. The conversations these past few weeks have become comical. One day she asked me, “How many sets of sheets should I have?”

“Well, you have two. That way, you have a fresh set whenever you need to do laundry,” I answered.

“Well, but what if I don’t have money to do laundry? I’m going to get a job right away, but what if I don’t get paid for three weeks or whatever?” she asked.

“Then I guess your sheets have to go a little longer between washings,” I answered.

“But what if I don’t have quarters?” she asked and I noted the accelerated pitch.

At this point, I entered the mother mode indicated by a huge sigh. There is no answer sufficient for the panic that is growing. My answers became simple and logical. “Renee, I’m sure there’s a change machine.”

“What if there’s not?”

“They have banks in California.” My tone has now reached an almost monotone calmness. There is no purpose for conflict.

“Mom, I know THAT!” she retorted.

“So, how many sets of sheets do you think you need?” I asked.

“Well, I think two is enough,” she answered.

I poked my head into the pantry and feigned looking for a spice so she wouldn’t see me laugh.

Too soon all the questions will stop — or at least most of them will. When I went away to college, I would have asked the counter boy at the pizza joint for advice before I called home to ask my mom. I was a college student after all.

I think she’s just about finished arranging everything. I was beginning to wonder if she was going to leave room for her dad’s suitcase and mine. Michelle reminded her of it right at the last minute.

Now it’s time for all the last minute hugs and kisses and goodbyes. Renee holds little Mark for more than a minute. She is going to miss her little nephew more than she even realizes. I have the map. My husband, Tim, has his coffee. Renee has her cell phone. We are ready.

Years of traveling with kids had formed habits. We start in the evening and drive into the night. Tim always drives first. Then he gets tired so I drive until I can’t anymore and we pull over in a rest stop and sleep for a while. We’ve never sprung for a hotel for the first night. A hot shower and a soft bed would be nice, but we do have a hotel waiting for us in Montana the second night. Oh, well, this trip we will let Renee drive some. Usually, the kids don’t drive on family trips. I can’t stand the bickering over whose turn it is. What were we thinking adopting six kids so close together in age? Only four years top to bottom! We must have been crazy.

As we pull into the drive-thru at the burger joint for our dinner, Renee’s not hungry. Tim buys her a meal anyway. I almost tell him not to, but it won’t do any good. As I sip my drink, my mother heart wants to jump in the back seat and hug her and tell her she’s going to be fine. She is starting the adventure of a lifetime. It would just make her mad. She wants to pretend she is grown and doesn’t need a mom anymore. It took her forever to even trust me as her mom — we are just getting started and she wants to be grown up. We ride in silence for almost two hundred miles.

Why is it that sometimes no matter how fiercely you love someone, there can be that unbridgeable gap? Though she wasn’t born of my body, Renee was born in my heart. That first night, I stepped into the girls’ room and watched her and Steph sleeping. I don’t know what mothers feel when they look at the children they give birth to, but my heart swamps me when I watch mine sleep. So many nights since, I slipped into the stillness and tried to picture her little. I’ve had to find time apart and alone so I could rant at the woman who walked away from this girl when she was only a toddler. How can crack mean more to you than a child? I’ve listened to her stories of her grandmother, then her aunt, then a foster mother and wished that it had been me that shared her giggles, her hurts, her temper. The only reality has been the aloofness and detachment of adolescence. She bristled if I even asked if she needed tampons. So independent. Someone once said that raising children is like being pecked to death by chickens. On of my chicks is flying the coop and I sense impending relief.

Wait a sec . . . That highway sign . . . I don’t think this is the right way. Sure enough, we’re lost. Oh, crap! Tim is going to stop and ask some stranger for directions and I’m going to be mortified. It’s supposed to be men who won’t ask, but I’m the one who hates asking for directions. Good, there’s a convenience store. We can go to the bathroom and stretch and figure out where we are.

We are only two blocks off course. How in the world did he do that? It’s time to change drivers. Tim is getting sleepy already. The air is stifling hot as I slide into the driver’s seat welcoming the cool interior. Thank goodness we weren’t here long enough for the interior to warm up.

I plop my soda in the drink holder, my box of candy in the change caddy, and adjust the mirror. I smell something stale, even though we just threw the trash away. I look around to see if we missed something. The yellow glow from the lights of the convenience store isn’t bright enough so I reach down and snap on the dome light. I am blinded momentarily by the brightness but my eyes quickly adjust. There between the backseats sits Renee’s uneaten dinner, still in the sack. When she’s nervous, she either eats like a linebacker or doesn’t eat at all. I climb out of the van once last time to throw the pungent, hours-old food away. I sure don’t want to smell that for the next thousand miles.

The mechanism of the back seat clanks and thumps several times as Tim adjusts it backward so he can sleep. Renee rustles around next to me, arranging her purse and snacks just so for the ride ahead. Always the perfectionist. She’s the only girl I know who makes her bed so perfect that she can tell if one of her sisters sits on it.

I sigh and turn the key. The engine purrs to life and I reach for the gearshift. The smooth plastic is freezing cold. The air-conditioning vent must be blowing right on it. Renee hates the cold. She said that’s why she chose a college in California. I still think she just wants to get as far from home as she can. Adjusting the vents, I shift the van into gear and jostle and maneuver through the bumpy parking lot onto the dark highway stretching before us. This road is smooth, and as I reach highway speed, the tires settle into a soft hum.

Here we are. Iowa is behind us and Minnesota and several other states lay in the hours ahead. Only three hours in the van, and a pain is piercing my right shoulder. I stretch my arm to relive the cramp. I should have slept when I had the chance. I try to squint though the darkness and glimpse the landscape, but there is no moon and the blackness envelopes all but the asphalt in my headlights.

So many thoughts jumble in my head. I can feel my heart quicken slightly in my chest with my maternal fears for this girl. All the bickering with a teenage daughter is ending and a new adventure beginning. Have I told her everything I needed to tell her? Can you really tell a child all they need to know? I don’t really know how to advise her on the best way to break away from me. It seems like I worked forever for this moment and I’m not ready. Will we grow apart like the distance that separates us, or will we grow together as adult friends?

Renee must be struggling with her own thoughts, because she is doing what she always does when she is nervous. Talking. Above the hum of the tires and the soft snores from Tim in the backseat, my ears are full of Renee’s nervous chatter. “Do you think I brought everything, or do you think I brought too much?” She is trying to be quiet but her voice is tinny with apprehension. “If I forgot something, will you and Dad send it to me? How much do you think it costs to mail me a package? Maybe you could make me some cookies and send those, too.”

“Well, did you go through the checklist they gave you? Did you have everything on the list?” I ask, being careful to use the smooth, calm tone that mothers use when they comfort a fearful child. It is really a strange circumstance to have this kind of conversation. This is weird. Though she is an adult, she needs the confidence of her mother’s approval.

“Yes, but I probably have too much. I think I’m going to have to send half my stuff home with you and Dad. Will that be okay? Will you put it away for me so the girls don’t mess with it? What if . . .” Soon her words fade into the background noise. She isn’t really talking to me anyway. She is working through her own fears. We settle into the mother-daughter role we perfected through her teenage years. The sound of her voice rises and falls with her emotions in scattered thoughts, and I nod sympathetically and mumble and occasional “mm, hmm.”

The drone of the tires is vibrating up my spine. Night has fallen. My sweet daughter’s voice fills my ears with her fearful monologue and the road stretches out in the darkness before us. An occasional flash of a roadside reflector snaps in my eyes.

Renee’s chatter calms. Her sentences grow shorter, and the space of time between them grows longer. Eventually, the even breathing of her sleep joins that of her dad in the back seat. For the first time since we left home, I am completely alone with my thoughts.

I don’t know if there is a task as difficult as that of being the mother of a teenage daughter, especially one you didn’t even meet until she was half grown. There isn’t an easy stage, but so far, the most awkward stage has been this space between childhood and adulthood. Of my three girls older than Renee, Michelle married Eddie right out of high school and had Mark, Kay went to school near her grandparents, and Lisa got a job and still lives at home. Renee is going far away and is going to be away from all of our family. I’d tried to fill a lifetime with memories of home and family in five short years. We had some good ones. We’d gone camping at the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan and in the Rockies. There was the one day when I kept all the girls out of school and took them shopping in Chicago. So many times, we spent hours, just Renee and I, looking through books in Barnes and Nobles.

We had some bad memories. There was the time that I walked in on her proudly showing all her friends the pictures of her birth-mom and I burst into tears I felt so stupid. But I really hate that woman. Then there was the big blow up when she “fired” me as her mother. I still don’t know for sure whether or not she ever officially hired me again. She thinks she has it all figured out.

Driving in the darkness, I ponder the failures. She still hesitates to come to me when she is pain. I wasn’t there when she was little and fell on the playground. Nobody really was and she hadn’t learned trust in those early years. But I do know the shadow of pain in her eyes. Now, I’m going to have to listen for that shadow in her long-distance voice. I hope I hear it. I hope she doesn’t guard it too closely. When I do hear it, I’ll have to decide when to rescue her and when to let her learn.

My eyelashes are pulling like weights on my eyelids. The green-glow numbers on the radio flash 2:30 a.m. Somewhere here I have a map marked with rest stops. The best I can decipher from the map and the mile markers, I only have about twenty miles or so before the next one. With a quick glance of my daughter sleeping beside me, I sigh. Love crashes through my soul. Even though she thinks she’s grown, she’s my baby — my baby I never I never knew as a baby. She’s so beautiful.

Just a moment passes, and I turn the car into the parking lot, cut the engine, recline my seat, and sink into long-needed sleep, making sure all the doors are locked.

This is anohter fiction piece that isn't really fiction. The names and some of the details have been changed, but for me, this is as real as the day it happened.

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