Last week I drove you to the airport. It was a ride of pride and pain; you were off to Australia. Why so far away? When you came into the kitchen that Saturday afternoon, all flushed with excitement about your gap year doing a beekeeping internship in Queensland, my heart fluttered with joy and plummeted with grief.
When we loaded your guitar into the trunk of my tired Suzuki, you closed the boot with a bang and went to the front seat. I sat beside you trying to make little jokes about how bees wouldn’t like these banging noises and you nodded quietly as you always do.
I put the car in gear and pulled into the street. I wondered if you were going to look at the house one last time for God knows how long, but you didn’t. You fiddled with your earphones and put them in and I could hear faint loud music seeping through the gaps.
My usual response would’ve been an eyeroll and a wounded plea to talk to your “poor mother” while she drove your majesty around. But not that day. What was the point of forcing you to speak to me? I was too sad. Sad for me because I wouldn’t see you for a very long time, happy for you and your once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
As the car rolled down the streets bathing in the early haze of dawn, I admired the houses adorned with red and golden tree crowns. Some houses had carved pumpkins and quietly beautiful wreaths that announced the arrival of my favourite season. I wondered if you ever wished I were more domestic.
It reminded me of four-year-old you at your first Halloween party. We had bought tickets for a kids’ party organised by one of the parents at your kindergarten. I remembered the trip to the toy shop, my excitement at the thought of you picking your first costume. I wanted to dress you as a little ghost, but you wanted the tiger one.
“But Danny, don’t you think you would make the cutest ghost ever?” I said in a soft tone, holding your little, meaty hand in mine.
“No, mummy!” your impossibly sweet voice said, “I want to be a tigaaaa!”
You roared the last word narrowing your eyes menacingly and baring your milky-white little teeth.
“Oh, no, help!” I laughed and squeezed your hand as I swooped the tiger costume off the rack.
The day of the party, I looked up some face paint pictures and used my makeup to turn your soft skin into a white and orange map with black whiskers. You put on your tiger suit and I took a million pictures and videos of you as you roared and posed. I kept feigning fear and you kept laughing hysterically. I was so proud of my little baby turning into a big boy all dressed up, cute and full of personality.
The next part is the part I always daydream about. I wish I could turn back time and do it like this:
We would walk into that dark hall they’ve turned into a haunted house, complete with cobwebs and dangling spiders. You would squeal and chase your friends, the little witches, the hunters, the ghosts… and you’d all have a blast while the other melting parents and I took too many photos. And if you came to me crying and saying you were terrified and that you wanted to sit down or go home, I’d scoop you up and tell you mummy is here and then I’d put you on my lap and rock you back and forth like when you were still a baby, tired and fed up. I would drive you home, as long as you were sure you had enough.
I looked at you now out of the corner of my eye, but you were looking at your phone so intensely like your life depended on it. A tear escaped from my eye as the sun going for an early morning run alongside the car shimmered on your skin recovering from the hiccups of adolescence and preparing for the stubble of manhood.
Where did the years go? How did you grow up so fast and why did I feel like it was all a haze? Was I not “there”? Was I distracted? Do you feel I let you down somehow? Was I too hard on you? Perhaps not hard enough? Would you end up on a therapist’s couch gushing about all the way Mummy messed you up? But also, when would I see you again? Next year? What if you decide to move to Australia indefinitely? Where would I get the money to visit you? Would you come to visit? Would you do it willingly or would I have to guilt you into it?
Oh, my heart.
The car’s tyres swallowed the fast lane as you alternated between looking out at the sleepy fields and watching your hyperactive phone. Not once did you look at me. Where did I go wrong? I turned up the radio in hopes of it drowning the white noise in my head.
The signs for the airport loomed and a grip tightened around my heart. I put my hand on your neck and squeezed. You always loved this. Like a cat that melts at its person’s touch. Your shoulders relaxed and you smiled. Then you took out your earphones, put them in their white shell and deposited them, along with your phone, into your pocket.
You made a few remarks about how I shouldn’t miss my exit or how I should go into the short-term parking lot. How would I find my way out without you? You were always my navigator, man of the house, my grounding rock. A thorny lump formed in my throat and the grip tightened further. I loathe goodbyes, but it never crossed my mind that I’d be saying goodbye to you! It was like saying goodbye to an arm or an eye.
Oh, my heart!
You pointed out a good spot to park and I got out to help you take your luggage out of the car.
I locked the car and proceeded to help you carry your stuff in, but you said, nicely but firmly, “No need to come in, Mum. You shouldn’t be late for work.”
“Oh, but… I told them I’d be late,” I protested, “it’s fine!”
“Yeah, but my gate opens soon. You know these international flights. They’re so bad!”
My heart sank, “So this is it?”
“For now!” You gave me a tight but short hug and I helped you balance all your stuff on your shoulders and off you went.
I waited until you approached the automatic glass doors. I feverishly prayed under my breath that you’d turn around and wave. I craned my neck, making sure not to miss you in case you did turn around. But you didn’t. The opaque glass gate opened its arms and sucked you in like an alluring malevolent witch that smirked at me as it closed.
Defeated and heavy-footed I went back to the car. I sat down and fed my home address to the GPS. I couldn’t bear to go in to work. I needed time by my window, sipping tea and swallowing reality.
After two attempts to find my way out of the airport maze, I was finally on the road again. I looked at the empty seat beside me, a snickers wrapper was tucked into the passenger door pocket. How many arguments did we have over this? I almost made a mental note to tell you to clean the car when I saw you next, but then it quickly hit me that that wouldn’t be for many, many months. And I cried.
Then the story of your first Halloween party made its way back into my mind. The true story, not the one I daydream about. Why would this damn story not let me go?
We walked into that dark hall they’d turned into a haunted house, complete with cobwebs and dangling spiders. I felt your little hand tighten around mine and I felt you pressing yourself into my thigh. When you saw your friends, you let go of my hand and went to join them in comparing costumes and scaring each other. I spotted the other mothers and ordered a much-needed coffee after a long day of work and rushing home to dress you and back out to the party.
Then the party was about to start where you were all supposed to go on stage and present the song you learned in kindergarten. And you panicked. You came to me with that worried expression that not even the face paint could hide.
“Mummy, my stummy hurts,” you whispered, “I can’t sing.”
“What?” I was worried this might happen and we’d talked about it in the car.
“Maybe I ate too many sweets?”
“Danny, please!” I pleaded, “Don’t do this! You promised!”
“I know!” you were starting to get exasperated, “but my stummy…”
“So now what?” I interrupted you, “You want to sit here and watch your friends sing while you miss out?”
“I want to go home,” you said in your little voice not meeting my eye.
“Danny!” I looked at the coffee that had just arrived, “C’mon! This is so much fun! Look at the treats over there! Look at David and Elsie and how much fun they’re having; don’t you want to join them?”
“NO!” you stomped your little tiger foot and your tiger hood slid off your head.
My eyes must’ve widened in surprise at your tone.
I took a deep breath, “Can mummy finish her coffee at least?”
“All the scary little boys and girls of the Happy Hoppers group come up on stage please!” a friendly voice boomed around the hall.
“Look!” I stroked your sweaty, matted hair, “They’re calling you! You’ll do great, Danny! Remember how much we practised?”
And you started crying so loudly, I didn’t know what to do. Nearby families turned around to see what was happening. I got up quickly and spilled my untouched coffee all over the ghost-speckled plastic tablecloth and the floor. I quickly asked auntie Mel to pay for my coffee and pulled you behind me. You stumbled as you tried to catch up and I scooped you up under my arm and stomped out of the dark hall and into the fading sunlight.
“OK, now is the time to be quiet!” I said through gritted teeth, “why are you even crying? You wanted to leave and we’re leaving!”
But you increased the volume.
When we got to our apartment building, we were both quiet. I got out of the car and unbuckled your car seat. You quietly got out of the car, avoiding eye contact. I bit my lip and went up the stairs behind you. We usually held hands while we got up the stairs, counting to ten. First in English, then in French, your preferred language, then back in English.
But not this time. This time you stormed your way up on those short legs and all I wanted to do was scoop you up from behind and cover you in kisses, but you were mad at me.
When we got home, you went straight to your room and banged the door. For the first time since the day you were born, you slept in your own bed and not nestled into my stomach. My heart ached.
I cried all the way back home. I never apologised because everything went back to normal the next day. I wanted to say sorry many times after that, but it felt silly. The sun was now fully up but was still blanketed in some grey clouds. All I wanted now was to go home and be blanketed in my own grey blanket until the pain of you leaving subsided.
When I got home, I took off my shoes and slipped on my slippers, but there was something in the right one. When I looked inside, there was a piece of paper. A letter from you.
I can’t believe it! I’m off to Australia and you won’t be coming with me. It feels so weird and unnatural. Who’s going to watch the movies with me on the plane? Whose dessert am I going to pinch? Who’s going to wake me up when we land? Who’s going to nag me to finally take my clothes out of the suitcase? Who’s going to wake me up with a mug of tea every morning? But more importantly, who’s going to be there every night checking her phone to see if I need to be picked up from a party gone wrong… who’s going to ask me why my nails are bitten down to the nub?
I know there were times where I said I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, but trust me, my sadness to know I won’t be seeing your face every day for a whole year definitely trumps my excitement to see Australia and start my new life.
Today, as I close my last suitcase, I realise that you gave me the best life you could. You worked hard, you made sure we had at least one holiday a year, you read to me every night, you made me laugh when I was sad and you held me when I cried.
I am so sorry I could never tell you these things in person. I’d hate to have our last interaction be a tearful one.
But I will always be here. I will send you reminders when it’s time to take Sugar to the vet and when you need to turn off the garden water supply so the pipes don’t freeze and burst. Just don’t burn down the house while I’m gone (please get a new hairdryer).
I’m choking up as I write this, so I’d better stop.
Please be happy and stay busy until I’m back. I honestly miss you already. You are the best mother I know!
P.S., While I was packing, I found the seashell bracelet you made me when we were on the beach in Spain. I think I’m going to need it.
Oh, my heart!