We had forgotten something.
As we watched your slow progress along the snaking line of the airport security checkpoint, the feeling continued to taunt us.
But what was it?
We were pretty sure that it wasn’t an overlooked domestic task. It seemed to be more important than that. No relative or friend had a proximate birthday; nor was it akin to that uniquely middle-aged experience of walking purposefully into a room and then not having the slightest idea why you are there. Whatever it was, its elusiveness was only matched by its apparent significance.
Ignoring the feeling for a moment, our moistening eyes continued to follow you as you made your way into the departure area. You turned and, with the widest smile and a final kiss blown from an extravagantly waved hand, you disappeared around a corner to take the first steps of a journey, alone, to the other side of the world.
You were gone.
We stood in silence, balancing inelegantly on the tips of our toes, ignoring the tears now rolling down our cheeks, hoping for a brief encore. It did not come.
Seventeen years of memories flooded the moment. Time has added a certain vagueness to many of them now; they return occasionally when the mind randomly selects one from the vast catalog of our shared experience. Some still feel as if they happened this morning.
They had started on a bitter cold January day and with an insistent voice that cut through the hubbub of a sterile room. “Dreizehn Uhr vierundzwanzig … dreizehn Uhr fünfundzwanzig …” until the sequence was broken by the squeaky-door cry with which you greeted the world.
A week later (for the Swiss know a thing or two about post-natal care), while you happily gurgled away, two nervous, new parents were driving you home. For nine months we had planned, meticulously, for this moment. But now our confidence had succumbed to doubt and fear. The theoretical had suddenly – and surprisingly – become actual and immediate. We were genuinely scared. How could we possibly navigate you successfully through your formative years and instill in you the foundational qualities of academic understanding, decency, politeness, and respect if we couldn’t work out how to secure a car seat?
However, before we could catch our breath, days had turned to months. Months soon turned to years.
There had been countless hours spent cradling you gently, encouraging sleep with soothing sounds, walking slowly around a dining room table. Clockwise. It had to be clockwise.
There was the boy who made you cry that triggered an overwhelming compulsion to storm up to that heartless eight-year-old’s door to give him a piece of a parent’s mind.
There was that strange combination of feeling both inadequate and relieved when your mathematics homework finally became too complicated to benefit from our help.
But, above all, we remember the firsts.
First steps. First bicycle ride. First drive.
Each time you made us nervous. With each first you asserted your growing independence – and our increasing insignificance.
I spent the majority of the two years after your first steps one step behind you, inelegantly bent at the waist, my outstretched arms ready to save you from an inevitable stumble and a fatally scraped knee.
I remember watching, terrified, as you first sped away from my protective reach, training wheels removed. But that terror was as nothing compared to standing on a driveway, looking on helplessly, as a familiar car and its young driver turned a corner and disappeared from view.
Now, I will admit to a tendency towards the over-protective. In fact, had it not been for your mother’s admonitions to me that you will not learn how to succeed if I don’t let you fail, if I don’t let you fall – just once in a while – there is a distinct possibility that I may still be shadowing your every footstep. Not bent at the waist quite so much these days, but still there.
She was correct, of course.
After each failure, you learned. After each fall, you recovered. And, after each first time, you came home again.
And you came home again because we let you go.
But until that day at the airport, never were you going to be so far away, for so long. Yet we somehow knew you would be fine.
From your earliest days, although you were merely a prisoner to our wanderlust, we had encouraged you to explore; to be curious; to be inspired by the world around you.
We emphasized the importance of being sensitive to other cultures and ways of life, always taking care to remind you that cultural sensitivity is more than understanding that people in other parts of the world do things differently, and how easily the seemingly innocent act can insult. We taught you to remember that it is actually possible to do things in a different way, to think in a different way – and that different doesn’t mean wrong.
We told you stories about the footprints we have left in all corners of the world; from navigating its most magnificent cities to standing, in awe, before its most sublime vistas. We hoped – no, we knew – that you would one day make footprints of your own; not by blindly following ours, but by finding your own path, and then reliving your experiences with slightly jealous parents.
Your eventual arrival at this point, at this airport, was inevitable. We had guaranteed that. The destination that would provide the backdrop to the first chapter of your global travel story may have been unknown, but the day on which you opened the book had only ever been a matter of when.
All that now remained was to hope that we had prepared you well.
And then, as we turned away from the security checkpoint that day – silent, reflective, holding hands tighter than ever before – we finally realized what we had forgotten.
We hadn’t prepared ourselves.
Once again, we were two nervous parents driving home. Alone this time. We had planned, meticulously, for this moment. Although we were confident that we had equipped you to succeed, this did little to allay those doubts and fears that (as we have come to learn) are the exclusive domain of the parent. Once again, the transition from theoretical to actual had surprised us in much the same way as it had seventeen years before.
The difference is that you are now responsible for your own seatbelt.
Enjoy the ride!
A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath one’s feet – Laozi
25th February 2019
For information regarding the CIEE High School Study Abroad program, click on this link: https://www.ciee.org/go-abroad/high-school-study-abroad/summer