On the day my daughter was born, she started living without me. I mean “without” in the sense of “outside of.” Her body began to live without my body.
That day, her birthday, has meant something special to me for eight, almost nine years. It’s the day I became a mother. I’ve marked each year of her life with big parties (there have been ponies involved more than once), but this year is going to be different. It’s got me a little choked up.
Vivi has been wanting to go to sleep away camp so we’ve decided that this summer is her time to try it. I never went to camp, so there’s no legacy here. With the rampant enthusiasm of my friend, Bryn, I found a camp that looks like a perfect fit for Vivi. It’s a camp about leadership for girls. Teaching girls independence and competence. Cooking over a fire, playing in a swimming hole, singing songs together, paddling a canoe, sleeping in tents.
All great, all great. But after I clicked the Register button, I realized that Vivi will be at camp on her ninth birthday. I broke the news to her and her reaction was, “COOL!!!!” OK. Maybe it’s just me having a hard time with this.
Planning her birthday party has always been my special gift to her–a way of showing her how extravagantly she is loved. This year, my gift to her will be letting her go. Pushing her in the direction of living without me.
Since my dad’s death, I see the importance of making sure my children can live without me. I felt something similar after Richard died–I only had grief, not struggle on top of the grief. My husband was dead, but I knew how to do the taxes and change the outside flood lights and check the air pressure in my tires. I only had to learn how to live with missing him, because I already knew how to live without him. Same with Daddy–I miss him, but I still know everything he managed to teach me about living. He didn’t do things for me. He taught me how to do them myself.
Last night, I asked Vivi, “Is there anything about camp that worries you?”
“Not making friends.”
My heart seized up. What if that happens? What if, even though I know the counselors know how to make sure everyone has a good time, what if my little girl spends a few moments sitting on the edge of her bunk feeling alone in the world? GULP.
“Well, I don’t think that will happen, sweetie. You make friends everywhere you go. If you do find yourself feeling apart, be kind to someone else who might be having a tough time. The best way to have a friend is to be a friend.”
“Or what if I make friends then I have to leave them when camp is over?”
There’s that too, baby. There’s that too. “You’ll be able to see each other at camp next year!”And then I went to my room and cried a little bit with fear for her. But she’ll learn. She’ll learn to tell herself these things when I’m not there beside her. The only way for her to learn that she can navigate the world on her own is to let her live without me.
We spent Easter Sunday in the woods at Cowtail, riding ATVs and slinging mud around. I’ve never been comfortable driving the ones you steer with handlebars–I like driving the Mule because it has a steering wheel, a brake, and a gas pedal. The kids love the Mule because we can pile all of them in the back and go caroming over stumps and rocks, weaving through trees and plowing through mud holes. The kids have to wait until one of the adults will drive them.
Victoria rode shotgun with me for a couple of trail rides. It was tough driving in the rain. We had to remember to keep our mouths shut while hitting the mudholes at full speed–mud gets EVERYWHERE when you’re hooting and hollering. She’s never driven the Mule but she’s sixteen now and knows how to manage a steering wheel, a brake, and a gas pedal.
I gave her a little push and she tried driving it. She wouldn’t let the Littles ride in the back–it had to be just the two of us. And she may have pruned a sapling or two on the tight corners. But she did it.
After a while, I relaxed enough to look out at the scenery, which I never get to do when I’m driving. I saw dogwood trees that nobody planted, just blooming in the woods in the rain. I saw chunks of pink quartz peeking up from the earth. I saw 20 colors of green.
Victoria learned how to enjoy the Mule without me and that gave me the opportunity to sit there beside her, fully present.
As we ground our way up Rock Hill, she said, “I can’t wait to bring my kids to Cowtail. It’s cool to think that they’ll be playing with Grant’s kids and Jake’s kids and all the cousins.”
That’s family. Growing into that fine balance where you know you can stand on your own but you never have to be alone. With and without.