After Christmas with V’s family I drive Daniel to San Jose Airport to fly down to LA to visit his dad. He gets out of the car and waves goodbye. I am not watching a 20-year old man with broad shoulders carrying his bags; I am seeing a little 6-year-old boy with a backpack walking away from me.
That is the scene I remember every time I am at this airport. It comes from the year I remarried, a year filled with angst and guilt for moving my kids away from their dad, when I first started sending them alone to visit him.
I haven’t yet expressed the extent of my neurotic obsessive hands-on mothering style in those days. Probably this stemmed from losing my own mother at an early age, but whatever the cause, let’s just say I had intense separation issues. I also found it hard to let my kids out of my personal zone of control. Both of these things—separation and lack of control—are impossible to avoid when you are divorced.
The kids were 6 and 10; and I don’t think they have very clear memories of this. It was before 9/11 so I was allowed to wait at the gate with them. They would wear their little tags from the airline for kids flying alone, which made them feel proud but made me feel guilty. I don’t think flying alone was very hard for them; but it was agony for me.
I was definitely capable of chasing them down the jetway, flinging myself at them in tears. I’m fairly certain that scene played out only in my imagination. In real life I’d stand at the entrance to the jetway and reluctantly let them go– after they allowed me to smother them with as many hugs and kisses as they could tolerate in public. Finally I’d let go and they’d walk down together and they always looked so fragile and vulnerable wearing their backpacks that looked so huge compared to how small they were. At 6, Daniel instinctively understood that I needed him to look back at me before he disappeared from my sight. He always did.
And then they would disappear into the plane and I could let the tears go. I’d stand at the window while the other passengers boarded, wondering where the kids were sitting. Then the plane would pull out and I’d stay there, jealous of all the intact families traveling with their kids, while I would be returning in two hours to an empty house.
I won’t even go into the scenarios I would imagine about what could happen between the time the plane rolled away from the gate and the moment their father would meet them at the other end. In case technical problems forced the plane to return to the gate, I would have been ready; since I always waited until I knew their plane was in the air before I walked back to the car.
It turned out that there was actually a benefit to this. Learning how to let go and let my kids fly alone turned out to be a valuable and important step for me.
A few months later I had cancer. I had to let go of control and and let go of my kids in lots of ways. And this lesson wasn’t just for me but more importantly, for them. Maybe I’m just trying to see a negative aspect of divorce in a positive light. But I think flying alone helped prepare my kids for harder stuff ahead. Those small steps helped give them the confidence and independence to know they could take bigger steps without me standing right there.
More than anything else, I desperately prayed my children would not have to take all their steps in the future without me there at all. But if the worst happened, they needed to know that they could. And I needed to know that, too.