Expectation sometimes exceeds the event you await, but not so with our children's arrival.
It was a month and half after our dark night in the depths of la France profonde - the one and only time my husband and I considered abandoning our European gap year to retreat stateside. By the time our Chris and Caroline arrived at Milan's Malpensa airport to join us for two weeks of our expat year, we had fully recovered our enthusiasm for the journey.
Their familiar American faces leapt from the airport crowd in full color as all others blur to gray. From the moment they bustled through the international arrivals door, all was right with our world and I could barely control my excitement. I was jelly-kneed but on my toes, ready to pounce. There's nothing more beautiful than Caroline's smile and hearing Chris call me his pet name: "Maman!" The four of us converged in a "family hug," no one wanting to be the first to let go. Joe finally announced, "Guys, our Fiat awaits," to get us moving toward the exit.
Caroline asked, "How much Italian have you learned?" and I reminded her, "We've only been in Italy for three days, mia bella!"
Chris piped in, as he always did, "When do we eat?"
Our two weeks with our children were bliss. We explored La Spezia, hiked the Cinqueterre, took silly pictures at Pisa, skied the Dolomites, and concluded our family trip in Verona. We stayed in a hotel appropriately named Giulietta e Romeo, dined at a trattoria with the same name, shopped at the open-air Christmas market, and snapped pictures at the mythical home of Juliet under its romantic balcony in a cobblestone courtyard. I did my best to enjoy the time, but as our sad parting loomed, I found myself sobbing in the shower on our last night in Italy, though I pulled myself together and managed to dress for dinner tear-free, not wanting to ruin our final family evening.
The French have it right when they kiss and say au revoir--"until we see each other again," not "goodbye." And that's what we said to our children when they left us to go home. "We'll see you in less than four months, Dad," Caroline consoled Joe, but she was working as hard as he was not to cry. "Maman," Chris sayid, rubbing my back, "the next time we visit, you'll be in Paris. Just think about the meals!"
Joe and I both nodded and tried to smile, but it was time to say, "Until we see you again."
And so off they went, through security and to their gate, just four days before Christmas. While Chris's film-editing work was on hiatus for the rest of December, Caroline, a NICU nurse, had to work through the holidays; otherwise, the kids would have stayed through the twenty-fifth. We yearned to board the plane with them, to remain in their company and head back to our familiar United States. But we busied ourselves with our own departure details and the mechanics of getting to another terminal to catch our EasyJet flight to London. The decision to leave for England on the heels of the kids' departure was a perfect foil for our melancholy; distraction was a very helpful antidote.
We settled in at our gate, and I did my best to lose myself in a book. But the chattering holiday travelers passing by made me feel the physical absence of the grown-up Chris and Caroline I'd just hugged goodbye so keenly that my face twitched and then crumbled, the tears I'd held back all day spilling over. Not only did I miss my adult children, I realized in that moment, but I missed them as children as well. As happy as we are to see our sons and daughters grow, share the joy of their successes, help them deal with disappointment, and beam with pride as they become young adults, it's painful to say goodbye to their youth. Sitting on a molded plastic chair at a sterile airport gate, I miss my children's little selves--like friends I no longer saw--and I felt fleeting but unmistakable loss. I shared my thoughts with Joe and leaned my head on his shoulder. His voice thickening with sentiment, all he managed was, "I know, babe, I know."
The announcement of our flight to Gatwick interrupted my wistful reverie. I shook off my funk and strapped on my backpack, and we were on our way to London--stiff upper lip and all that. It was time for new adventures sans children; we were back to being on our own, back to being just two for the road.