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Six weeks ago:
"I don't want to go, Mama!" Julia is bawling. Flailing. Fighting me as I struggle to buckle her into her car seat. Every time I get an arm under a strap, she yanks it back out again before I can click the buckle into place.
Her chest is heaving. Her cheeks are glazed in snot.
I try to put on a brave face: "Julia, it'll be fun, you'll see! You'll get to splash in the pool, and paint, and play in the sandbox, and be with all the other kids..."
I'm taking Julia to summer camp, and so far, it's not going well. As I force her into her car seat, rattling off all the reasons why I think she'll like camp, I'm simultaneously ticking off my own mental checklist, reminding myself why we're doing this: A.) because we want Julia to have a "fun" transition into preschool; B.) because we don't want her to be stuck in the house all summer while I'm working; C.) because we want her to play with more kids her age..."
"But I just want to stay home with you, Mama!" Julia sobs, interrupting my internal pep talk.
I buckle her in and walk around to the driver's side of the car, fighting back my own tears. I watch in the rear-view mirror as sobs rack Julia's body. Her suffering seems somehow personal...private. Not for my benefit. Not meant to convince me. It's such pure, unadulterated grief that I have to look away.
"It's OK to be a little bit scared," I say to the mirror, trying to compose myself. "Everyone's a little nervous the first time they try something new. But once you try it, you might really like it. Remember how you used to be afraid to wash your hair, but then you learned just the right way to tilt your head back, and now you love to wash your hair?! It's kind of like that."
I think I see Julia perk up a tiny bit. "That was a convincing argument," I tell myself, all the while wondering which one of us I'm really trying to convince?
In the midst of Julia leaving us for the first time, Charlie is having separation anxiety.
I first noticed it a few weeks ago: Will and Charlie and I were sitting in our TV room when Will got up to get a drink from the kitchen. Charlie looked up from the block he'd been gnawing on, said "Bye-Bye," and promptly returned his attention to his block.
Fast-forward three weeks, and Charlie will sometimes break into spontaneous, heart-wrenching sobs when one of us leaves the room. It's as if it's suddenly occurred to him that we're gone—no longer vaporized into nonexistence the minute we step out of eyesight, but gone. Now, we get up to grab a bag of chips, and Charlie thinks we've left him to be raised by wolves. You can watch the realization dawn on him like some time-elapsed photo, where his face first registers happiness, then mild curiosity, then gut-wrenching heartache, all in the space of three seconds. And as soon as the absentee parent reappears, you can see the transition happen in reverse, as a tentative smile crosses his tear-streaked cheeks, then relief floods his face, and then—incomprehensible joy.
I can't even tell you what this does for the ego. And I can only imagine what's going through Charlie's brain while this is taking place: "Hey...there's my Dad...Wow, he's as tall as a skyscraper when he stands up...There he goes, over to the doorway...Wonder what he's up to?"... and...(wait for it)...Poof!... "Holy, crap! He's gone?! Mother of God! How will I live? I'm doomed!"... and then...Poof!... "Oh, thank you God, thank you, God, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you..Hey...are you gonna give me one of those chips, or what?"