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Carry-On Suitcase

excerpt: Gone for Good

Letting Go, Part 1: Doorways

Because of COVID, the start date for Alex’s new job was delayed eight months, but when it finally appeared there might be a tiny window opening for her to leave for Japan, we had to keep our knees bent on the details. We did what we could ahead of time, but I had a sense that when the call came for her to go, it would be akin to a relay gun going off. And so it happened, as she texted me one lunchtime with negative COVID test results and a shaky question, “OMG, does this mean I’m leaving tomorrow?”

     My heart quickened but I was reminded of what I needed to do and how I needed to do it. In my Type Triple-A personality fashion, I asked if she wanted me to be her admin for the next twenty-four hours. She accepted. So from 1:00 p.m. Tuesday until noon on Wednesday, our hours were full of final errands and paperwork, ridiculously overfilled suitcases, soft words, and hard choices. She jokingly accused me of speaking in what she called my “counselor voice”—low, slow, and calm—and I admitted I was trying to keep our collective anxiety in check.

     Later that night, as James Taylor’s smooth baritone flowed from the computer speakers she’d gifted me, the music drew her downstairs to my office. As I turned to tell her how great the speakers sounded, she said, “I need a rubber band. And a huh-huh-huh-hug.” Then she started to sob. “I heard your music, and . . . and . . .”

     Oh, my sweet child—and you’re not going to hear it like this again.

     And things are changing in a seismic way.

     And this was always supposed to happen.

     And our hearts and eyes are spilling over.

     We made our way to the sofa and I drew her close into my right shoulder, pure muscle memory, the way I had through every shared grief, every shared fear, every shared hope. I stroked her hair, and I reminded her of all the things that led her to this moment, the brick-by-brick-by-brick God had laid out for her. It was going to be alright. It was going to be all right. For us both, this was the proper order of things—a long build completed, the finishing touches celebrated.

     When I finally got to bed, my thoughts drifted to the weeks prior to Alex’s departure and how my work with my counselor Christopher also was moving toward its natural end. One of my favorite Phoebe Snow songs, “I’m Your Girl,” had been playing on repeat in my mind. Written after her beloved mom had passed, she sang an ode to her mother-shelter, a poetic picture of the floors, ceilings, and hallways that contained their relationship and years. And so, in my mind, in that beautiful song, I shifted pronouns: You’re my girl. She’d been the reason for tending to my wounds; to not pass them along. The reason for building a better home; to give her roots and wings. The reason for spending the time; to focus the dozens of seasons, the thousands of days on growing and healing. I cannot say such words to my mother, but I can say them to my daughter—because of God. And by his grace and after receiving a whole lot of help, I became the kind of mom to whom Alex could say such things. And if that’s not some sort of reparational miracle, I don’t know what is.

     Leaving the house for O’Hare the next morning entailed checking and quadruple-checking, with wide eyes of disbelief and nervous laughter. I’ve made that drive a hundred times, but never with the weight of what awaited that day. Among the few good things that came from the pandemic was the fact that the departure drop-off area at O’Hare—one of the busiest airports in the world—was a ghost town. There were none of the tough, uniformed security officers barking, “I don’t care! Just move your car!” So we got to have our moment, unhurried.
     I held her as she cried, choked back my own tears, and reminded her again and again in crackly whispers that this was her doorway: She worked hard to find it, she was equipped to walk through it, and God had her back. Some guy out having a smoke took pictures for me, capturing our masks and our glossy eyes and her whole life stuffed into three suitcases and one bulging backpack. When I looked at those digital images later, I shook my head, incredulous: She did it! We did it! God did it!

     It's been suggested that part of being a good parent is being willing to cut the cord—cord after cord, again and again—at the right time. Standing outside the terminal, I recalled many lifelines that got us to that day and the one life-changing cord that awaited cutting with the utmost, tenderest love. And so, after one last squeeze, whispering momly reminders and gentle encouragement, I stepped back, caught her eyes, smiled behind my mask, and let her go.

*  *  *

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes, “Too many people spend their lives being dutiful descendants instead of good ancestors. The responsibility of each generation is not to please their predecessors. It’s to improve things for their offspring.” I pray I have done this well for her, and I marvel at what kind of hope Alex will extend, beyond her childhood home, beyond what’s held in her walls. All I know is I sent her off that remarkable October day with that covering, to dream and create her own abode, with God, with hope.
     Leaving home, grieving home, coming home, going home.
     Built strong, she’ll survive her storms. That girl’s got good bones.

Pumpkin Pie

excerpt: one-single mothering, full circle


It’s been half a lifetime since I spent the holidays with my original family. I was 25 when my parents started the long and fractured process of divorcing. I think if I had only known that last Thanksgiving would be the last Thanksgiving, I would have paid more attention.

     Not long ago, my favorite aunt passed away. She was the one who always hosted Thanksgiving, who always saved for me the critical job of making the onion dip. The Maker Of The Dip was a position in which I took great pride, because it started before I was tall enough to see the top of the counter and lasted through my young adulthood. When I moved away from Chicago in my thirtieth September, newly married and incredibly homesick, I called her and my uncle that first Thanksgiving and could barely choke out the words: “I wish I was there making the dip.”

     I think it’s human nature to want to go back, to get a do-over, especially when things ended poorly. There was much broken in my family that could not be repaired, at least not in an earthly timeframe. Most of the people I celebrated with all those years ago have passed; others are estranged, with more than just miles between them. During these most wonderful times of the year, I often have a foot planted in the past and future, missing the now. But this present-blindness causes such useless loss. I practice stopping and thinking of the strangers who’ve become like family, who consider us kin. I think of the care of the C/Kathies, my friend Bonnie’s quick, dark wit, Mollie’s generosity, Melinda’s grace, Alan’s conversations, and Colin’s and Brian’s home repair help. I think of my girl having a way different foundation than I did, by the grace of God, and how her life will be different. I think of what we’ve built and survived—our little family of two.

     So, even as I have the old snapshots scrolling through my head—the black-and-whites of childhood holidays and people long gone—today one of us will be cooking stuffing in our jammas, and one will be eating it for breakfast, also in her jammas, while watching the Macy’s parade. We’ve carved out our own traditions over the years. And I will also silently drink a toast to my aunt Patty, the great trainer of the Dip Maker, and ask to be just slightly more mindful of today. Though I love it, this season can hijack my attention so I focus on what I seemingly don’t have.

     I’m praying to see what I do.

Which holiday traditions have you carried over to your kids, and which have you left behind?

Whom do you consider “family” these days?

One Verse for Thought:

Go back to your homes, and prepare a feast. Bring out the best food and drink you have, and welcome all to your table, especially those who have nothing. This day is special. It is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve over your past mistakes. Let the Eternal’s own joy be your protection! –Nehemiah 8:10, VOICE

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