Back to school, but this time it's different

September....  Back to School time... An invigorating crispness in the morning air, leaves beginning to turn color and drop, satisfyingly crunchy underfoot.  Newly cut hair and freshly sharpened pencils.  Lunch boxes unsullied by the stink of half-eaten sandwiches.  Children flipping open the covers of brand new crayon boxes andpressing their noses against the cool flat tips, inhaling deply the smell that, even as adults, transports us to Septembers so far in our past they seem another lifetime.
For parents, some Septembers are more dramatic than others.  There is always that sense of beginning, but some years simultaneously signal an end.  Kindergarten for example.  The very first day of school.  Such excitement!  Such anticipation!  Breakfast eaten hurriedly so there is time for photos and last minute outfit adjustments.  Parents' smiles and optimism hiding their secret dread of turning their children loose to a world where other adults will hold sway over their thinking and judgment.  Where they will be subjected to fickle friendships and owies with no Mom to kiss and make better.
I remember vividly the first day of my older daughter's kindergarten year.  I thought about the day so often with a mixture of excitement and dread, but nothing prepared me for the real thing.  "C'mon!  Finish your cheerios!  We can't be late!"  The short walk over to school, her hand feeling suddenly oh-so-small in mine that I tightened my grip just a little.  The charged energy around the school yard as we entered the "big kid" world of teachers and books and new friendships.  The principal greeting everyone.  A few familiar faces.  And then, at last, the classroom.  Parents and siblings stood off to the side watching as the teacher introduced herself to the children and laid down a few ground rules.  Sarah looked small and angelic in her seat way in the back of the class.  I was in love with this moment.  But then the teacher's attention turned to us, breaking the spell.  "Thank you parents, brothers and sisters.  See you after school."  We shuffled out, our younger daughter in Dan's arms, all smiles and waves on the outside.   But inside was a different story.  Something major was changing.  I felt like I was outside my body, watching it happen.  Why wasn't I happy anymore?
The walk home was mostly quiet, with an occasional comment.  "The teacher seems nice," or "I hope it's okay that she's in the back."  When we walked into the kitchen and I looked at the remains of our rushed breakfast, three cheerios floating in the bottom of Sarah's Little Mermaid bowl, something caught in my solar plexus.  Something between joy and mourning, between a laugh and a cry.  This necessary change, this move into another phase of life, was as much a passage for us as it was for her.  And there was no going back.
When I picked her up that afternoon she asked, "So tomorrow am I in 1st grade?"  I had to explain the way that worked.  Then, after day three or four, she asked, "Do I have to go EVERY day?"  (The things we take for granted...)  And, yes, she went everyday.  And little by little it became part of our routine.  Normal.  "What did you do today?"  "I can't remember."  Homework, friends, teacher conferences.  Until I could barely recall the time when I had her all to myself all day.
Six years ago, this same child of the floating cheerios began college.  I spent much of the time leading up to that September in denial.  I could not imagine a day when she wouldn't come home for dinner, not because she was at a friend's house or at work, but because she was no longer living at home.
During the weeks before she left, I would walk into her room to find her boxing things up and I'd suddenly forget what I had come to say or do.  We'd laugh about it and hug a lot.  But here it was again.  The approach of another September -- another transition when our life would change irrevocably and forever.
Admittedly that last year, especially the last September, was tense.  Her yearning for independence was infecting the house and spreading like a disease to her younger sister.  Things were already shifting and I knew she was ready.  But was I?
On the big day, we packed the car to bursting.  Not with pencil boxes and lunch pails, but with a computer and bedding.  Not with shiny new shoes and hair ribbons, but with a CD player and mini-fridge.  And then we drove.  It felt like a normal family outing - an adventure - all four of us.
We found her dorm and began the marathon of unloading the car and climbing the four flights of steps over and over and over again until the car was empty and her room was full.  I made the bed; Dan checked elecrical stuff, making sure not to overload sockets.  Julia ran up and down the hall, exploring the rest of the dorm and checking out Sarah's new neighbors.  We met the roommate, did one last trip to the mall for forgotten or unanticipated items and, exhausted, had lunch.
And then -- it was time to go.  Only this time instead of the teacher asking us to leave, our daughter did.  "OK guys, I'm fine, you can go now."  One last smoothing of the bedspread and then a gentle, subtle push out the door.  Not so much a physical push as a look that said, "Go now.  This is it."
She waved to us from her window as we were leaving.  I was smiling and waving, swallowing hard to control the unbearable feeling at the base of my throat.  Here it was again - that out-of-my-body feeling reminiscent of the first day of kindergarten.  And then, the drive home.  An excruciating lump in my throat prevented me from crying.  Occasional sniffles from Julia in the back seat.  Pensive silence from Dan.
Just a few days later, though, it already felt better.  Normal.  The house was certainly neater.  And now, she has graduated and is living on her own, coming home on occasion for holidays, dinner, a visit.  It is normal, our new normal, to have her living away from us.
Kindergarten is just the first of many bittersweet partings that, if we do our job right, will come along the way.  There will come a day when September no longer requires outings for school supplies or drives to college.  But September will forever signal a time of transition.  We turn our faces toward the warm autumn sun and bask in the new season.  Not happy or sad.  Not good or bad.  Just new.
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