How many times, during the course of our lives, are we called upon to begin again?
I am writing this on an overcast morning. It’s the end of summer. A bittersweet time of transition from long, lazy days, the intoxicating drone of drunken bees, the air heavy, the sun dense and scorching to the crisp, fast pace of autumn.
This time of year, for me, always feels like the true new year.
It calls to mind the back-to-school shopping trips of my childhood. The new kilt (yes, kilt). The argyle knee socks. The dark brown Wallabees. The pit in my stomach at going back to school. What was this new year going to bring? Would I make new friends? Have a boyfriend? Do well academically? If I close my eyes and allow myself to drift back there—to those first days of school—I remember physical sensations. The air against my skin as I walked to school. The crunch of leaves. The way I watched everyone and everything, trying to figure out who I was, who I wanted to become.
In two days, my husband and I will be packing up our car and driving our fourteen-year-old son to a wonderful boarding school four hours away from us. Our car will be stuffed with every imaginable thing to make him at home in his new surroundings: special mugs, favorite tee shirts, music, guitar, ukulele, bicycle, multiple electronic devices. He will then depart on a five-day orientation in the wilderness with all the new students, where they will hike and camp out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
As I write these words, all of this seems impossible to me. It feels as if we just moved into this house with our three-year-old child. We just left the city for a new life in the rural countryside. We just walked him into preschool for the first time. We were just sitting in the bleachers, listening to him sing at his first Lower School concert. He just hit his first ball at a Little League game. Had his first sleepover. Wrote his first poem. Went to summer camp. Took his first quiz. Had his first piano lesson. Played a tennis match. Learned to ride a bike.
Every day, I encounter families who are in various stages of beginning again.
Last night, I ran into a friend who just dropped his son off at college. This morning, an email from a friend whose daughter, in her early twenties, has just left on a cross-country motorcycle trip. Say a little prayer, she wrote to me.
What is parenthood if not the accrual of many such moments, accompanied by the little prayers we parents say—whether we believe in God or not, whether we believe in prayer or not—we fervently, deeply, powerfully wish the best for our kids. We want them to grow up, to become independent, to leave us.
In two days, we will make the long drive from our house on a hill—a happy house, a loving house, one where we brought our best selves, at least most of the time, to the sacred job of raising a child—to drop our boy off for a new and exciting adventure. I will resist the urge to write him little notes and tuck those notes into the pockets of his clothes or stick them under his pillow, like I used to do when he was small. I will let him know that his father and I believe in him and are bursting with pride. I will make his bed, knowing full well that it’s probably the last time that his bed will be made until Thanksgiving. I will remind him to floss and to cut his toenails. And to eat protein. And to hydrate.
I will hug him hard. Hug him with everything I’ve got. I will silently say a little prayer.
I will remind him of one of my favorite quotes, from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Don’t be too timid or squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”
And as we drive away, my husband and I, down that long black ribbon of highway, I will try to allow myself to feel it all. The bittersweet moment—rich and full and painful and beautiful. We will begin again.
Dani Shapiro’s most recent books include the bestselling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion and the novels Black & White and Family History. She teaches writing workshops nationally and internationally. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, O The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, and have been broadcast on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives with her family in Connecticut. You can also follow Dani on Twitter and Facebook.
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