It's a glorious day in early September. Kindergartners fly around the playground like birds freed from cages. Across the street, a car pulls up. The driver parks, careful to not get too close and call attention to the prying eyes focused on one little girl. Auburn hair, fair skin with freckles, all innocence in a pretty new dress. Back and forth she swings. Back and forth. The driver watches her every move.
Five minutes go by. The driver sits silently, staring, eyes glued to the little girl. No one seems to notice the car. Good thing. The driver sits there, transfixed.
The start of a hellish nightmare? Hardly. Look more closely at the driver. It isn't some pervert. It's just another kindergarten mom on the first day of school, wondering where five years could possibly have gone. I know. I'm the mom. How many times had Katie and I been on this playground together, talking about the day she'd be one of the school kids at recess -- right here? Someday, we'd say. Not today.
But here it is: today. Today she's in heaven, and I'm still on earth -- in that morgue our house has suddenly become, without a little kid voice interrupting my every thought.
How did this happen? This hole inside where my stomach used to be -- that was not in the plan. I listened to other parents, filled with regret at not appreciating their kids when they were little. I listened and I took action. I was not going to have that regret myself. I designed my work so that Katie was almost always in tow, and when she asked me to play I almost always said yes. I did everything right.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for the school bus pulling away this morning. "On my watch, no harm comes," the bus driver reassured my husband and me. I knew she'd be safe. I just wouldn't be the one keeping her that way.
Overnight, I have become a bit player in the drama of my child's life. One day I'm costar; the next, cafeteria lady. I used to look with amusement on other women, whose big role in the various milestones was deciding on the menu. Now here I was, running to the grocery store last night in hope of making this morning's breakfast memorable. As though Katie would even taste it. She has to hurry to catch the bus, to get to school, to get on with life. Hers, though; not mine. How do you go from being everything to a child, to being someone whose opinion only matters if it happens to agree with her teacher's?
Lacking a better idea, I chase her bus. Oh, sure, it's my morning run, and I tell myself it's just coincidence that my route intersects the one her driver takes. It's safer this way, you know. People slow down for her bus, wondering why I'm following it.
Katie's in school, and I'm losing my teacher. The one who reminds me daily why we are here -- to enjoy it. Zipping your own zipper for the first time, stepping in every puddle between here and the playground, snitching cookie dough at every opportunity.
Parents' magazines run articles to help you know when your child is ready for kindergarten. To me, the issue was, would I be ready?
I thought the way to be ready was to put in the time. Make cookies from scratch, someone suggested. Don't buy them from the store or slap together a pan of brownies. "What about the time you'd save?" I wondered. I tried it anyway. We baked cut-out cookies, the kind your grandmother used to make. For hours we'd roll out dough, flour flying, shape by painstaking shape cut and transferred and baked and frosted. Focused on the baking, we'd talk. "Mom, know what? Mom, know what?" she'd say, all afternoon. And I'd think, why buy cookies from the store to save time? Time for what? For the kind of conversation I'm having with her now, the one that's only possible because I'm putting in real time.
That has been my gift to Katie: time. Now she's giving much of it back, and I don't want it. Every day she needs me a little less. That's been the real lesson. Not just putting in time when it's required, but backing off when it is not. I haven't made peace with that yet, but it's my assignment. I know one thing: Time is a formidable opponent. Making the most of it doesn't spare you sadness at its passing. Being ready for kindergarten doesn't mean you'll enjoy it. The grief I feel at Katie's growing independence is tempered only by knowing it could be worse. At least I savored her preschool years. If I haven't done my job by now, it's too late. There isn't enough time, quality or otherwise.
I wonder if I'll always be a kindergarten mom in recovery. Then again, I have a front-row seat to an amazing show. I get to watch Katie grow up. Maybe I'll learn how to do the same.
This essay was written when Katie was five. Now she's seventeen. She'll go off to college in another year. Will it be as hard on me as her first day of kindergarten was? I don't think that's possible. But I might be wrong!