Leaving my child by boat, like my ancestors did

P1040960I had never left

My first boy

In such an ancient way:

By boat.

Shiny, modern airports

Have always been the scenes of

Our parting.

Tears in the security line,

And then the suddenness

Of a plane trip

Away from my boy.

And a mere few hours later

I’m eight time zones,

One ocean,

And half a continent away from my son.

This time was different.

This time, at the end of our

Big family trip through Europe

The five of us

Said good-bye to Victor for

His summer in Finland with his dad,

And we got on a boat

In a harbor in Helsinki,

And set off into the

Baltic Sea for Germany,

Where we would fly home.

Once on the ferry,

After the craziness of getting

The rest of the kids out of the

Car hold and

Our stuff deposited in our

Cabin for the 30-hour trip,

Joe took the kids

And I had a few minutes alone.

I sat on the bed and

Watched out the window as

The boat chugged along the

Pine-forested coast of Finland and

Out into the Baltic Sea.

The steady rate at which the boat moved

Me away from my boy

Felt humane and natural

Compared to the

Otherworldly shock

Of the airplane lift-off.

With every few meters and

Knots the ship moved,

I acclimated to my boy’s

Physical absence.

It was a slower,

Gentler parting.

And I realized,

As I sat cross-legged on the bunk

Watching the sea swirl and foam,

One that I’m not the

First in my family to have made.

At the turn of the century,

My Finnish great-great-grandparents

Left for America

By boat,

Leaving behind their

Teenaged daughter–

My great-grandmother Selma–

And her younger brother Toivo.

A year later, in 1906,

The siblings would make the

Trip together:

A 16-year-old and a 12-year-old,

Traveling for weeks across the

Atlantic to

Meet their parents in

Their new homeland in 1906.

So as I sailed away from Finland,

Leaving my son behind for the summer,

I thought of my great-great-grandparents

Doing essentially the same thing

110 years earlier.

My situation,

Of periodic, international separation

From my little boy,

Feels abnormal from my

Low-boil heartbreak perspective.

But I know it’s actually not.

Parents and children

Are separated in our world

All the time,

And they always have been.

Whether through

Wartime chaos,

Arbitrary national boundaries,

Military service,

Difficult circumstances and decisions,

Sickness and death,

Addiction,

Incarceration,

Parents parent from a

Distance as best they can–

Or are unable to parent at all.

I think about the

Parents I know who

Don’t experience separation from

Their minor children

Sometimes with envy,

Until I remember that

Those of us who do

Endure it

Are only experiencing a

Premature and

Exaggerated

Version of what every parent

Eventually has to do,

Which is

Let

Go

And turn our children over to

The world and

The universe with

Trembling hands.

Whether they’re eight or

Eighteen or

Twenty-eight,

It has to be done.

What was that like for my

Great-great-grandparents,

I wondered as I watched the

Sea pass beneath our ship.

Did parents experience the

Maternal and paternal instinct in the

Same way back then

And back there,

When infant mortality was

30 times higher

Than it is today

And many families lived in

Third-world conditions?

I imagine they

Loved and grieved their children

With the same ferocity

As we in first-world modernity,

But perhaps there was a

Certain resignation

We don’t have today

To the fact of

Tragedy and pain,

Such as through separation from

A child.

It’s always been a comfort to me

To know that,

Though it feels like it sometimes,

I’m not the only one

Enduring the absence of my child

In this world.

The idea for

The novel I just finished the first draft of,

Firebird,

Comes from the stories of

Undocumented worker parents in our country

Deported,

Leaving their children behind,

Sometimes separated from them

Forever.

Those stories hurt my heart

So I wrote about them to

Soothe myself.

I’m fortunate.

I know I can get out my credit card

And my passport

At any time

And be with my boy within

24 hours, if I really needed to.

Not every parent in my

Situation has that luxury.

And certainly my

Great-great-grandparents didn’t.

In a few weeks, it will be time to

Go to the airport and

Wait outside the frosted glass

Sliding doors of

International arrivals,

Craning my neck to watch for him

Every time the doors open.

Maybe this time I’ll

Think about my great-great-grandparents

Waiting at the train station in

Waukegan, Illinois for their

Children whom they hadn’t seen in

More than a year.

How much taller would they be?

Was everything okay on the trip?

And most importantly,

Which train car would they step off?

There my boy will be,

Bigger and wearing new clothes,

Pulling his suitcase and

Pushing his glasses up on his face.

When he sees me

His mouth will twist up into the

Sly, embarrassed smile he gets with a

Rush of strong feeling.

I’ll squeeze his bones like a

Bundle of long sticks

And lift him off the ground,

Which I can just barely still do.

On the car ride home,

I’ll tell him about his

Great-great-grandmother’s journey from

Finland to America.

He’ll probably have questions about the

Boat and the

Train.

Logistics are important to him.

And he’ll know

That he’s not alone

In this family by

Splitting his life between two countries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life happens to kids, too

photo-56Maybe I’m just trying to soothe my

Anxiety

Over the decisions I’ve made.

But I was cheered by a radio program

On which a

Child psychologist argued that

Some adversity

Is good for kids.

They learn resilience and

Independence from having some

Challenges,

And we don’t do them any favors by

Protecting them from life’s trials.

“They are hard-wired for adversity,” she said,

“As long as they are loved and supported through it.”

I thought of Victor

At the airport,

The scene and symbol of his own

Difficulties.

He was leaving for the summer

To be with his dad.

He didn’t want to go.

In the security line,

Tears were leaking out his eyes and

He hid his face in my stomach.

No wailing,

No tantrum,

Just quietly in my ear when I knelt down next to him,

“I don’t wanna go,

Mommy.”

But he had to go.

And he knew it.

Kneeling down,

So my face was at his level,

I saw him prepare himself.

Widening and then blinking his eyes to stop the tears,

Looking off toward security,

Where he was going.

Not looking at me.

Closing his mouth into a

Straight, grim line.

Ready to go.

Six years old!

I was proud of him.

And you know what?

I’m grateful he has this experience.

A special challenge,

His own journey.

The urge is to protect him from these

Difficult

Adult

Situations.

But life happens to kids, too.

And I think these

Plane rides and

Doing what he doesn’t want to do,

Will help him be resilient,

Adaptable,

Flexible.

As long as he receives

Lots of love on

Either side of the ocean,

I think this trial will be part of his

Character,

Not part of his problem.

Summers without my boy

It’s not a simple question for me:

“How’s your summer going?”

The answer requires

A deep breath,

A quick assessment of how

Forthcoming

I want to be

With this person.

My six-year-old son

Spends summers with his

Father’s family

In Finland.

This summer,

He’s gone from

June 11 to

Aug. 25.

I’m Minnesotan;

I come alive in the summer.

I emerge from my

Black down coat with

Browned limbs,

Sun-lightened hair,

Tan-lined feet from my sandals.

Smile at strangers whose

Faces are liberated from

Scarves and hoods.

When my son is gone though,

I have to steel myself for summer.

I hate wishing time away—

Especially the rarefied days of

Light and green—

But I can’t help

Counting the summers down.

I’m not

Quite

Myself

When my first-born is not

Physically near.

I can function.

I’m fine;

I’m okay.

But a part of me is

Missing.

I’ve described it like

Temporarily

Losing my left arm,

If you will.

A survivable wound,

But disabling.

You can adapt to the loss,

But it’s obvious nearly every

Hour of

Every day.

Describing it to people,

I put a desperately positive spin on it:

“He has so much fun,” I say.

“The only grandchild.

All the attention on him.

Plenty of time outdoors.

Healthy food.

He always grows a mile.”

“What a great experience,”

People say kindly,

Even enthused for him.

I’ve never felt judged.

Thank you for that.

It’s a fear, I think,

Of many divorced parents.

Being judged for decisions we’ve made

That have given our kids

This

Story.

Yep.

I left.

I did it.

It was me.

And now my son’s story includes

Airports,

Backpacks full of toys, books, drawing material

For the plane.

Ability beyond his years to

Operate the seat-back entertainment system.

And me?

I haven’t bothered with 4th of July fireworks

In years.

I go to bed at 9,

Get up for work the next morning.

Just a day like any other.

To be gotten through.

This summer though.

I feel guilty saying it:

It’s been easier with Rocky,

The new baby.

I don’t have to

Turn off my

Maternal energies like a

Faucet

For 10 weeks.

There’s a small body to

Hold and squeeze,

Chubby cheeks to kiss the

Tears off of.

Joe and I joked,

Before Rocky was born,

We’d have him

All the time.

No one to hand him off to

For the weekend.

I’m glad.

I don’t want to share him.

I want to have access

At all times.

Make all the decisions.

I want to learn to let go

His freshman year of college

Dropping him off the dorm.

Not in security lines in airports.

I would never want Victor to think,

Though,

That Rocky has somehow

Replaced him.

I can’t wait to hold Victor’s

Larger,

Tougher

Body on my lap,

His long legs dangling,

His hands,

Dirty from outside,

Squeezing my fingers.

Rocky takes the edge off,

But Victor’s absence still yawns.

Seven more days until the airport.

Till Victor comes through the

Security doors

With his backpack,

Signaling the end of

Summer,

Finally.

Six days till I get my boy back

On Friday, I fly to Finland to

Bring my son home.

We’ve been doing this for three years,

So I’ve got some experience with the

Airport reunion.

Last year

When I went to get him,

I hadn’t seen him in person for

Seven

Months.

(Every-other-day Skype chats

Make this all possible.)

At the Helsinki airport

I came out a different door than

He and his aunt were expecting.

As I came up from the side,

I could see him

Standing on his tiptoes,

Looking for me to come through the

Security doors.

Smiling.

He was smiling.

That’s important.

I grabbed him from the side;

He never saw me coming.

The body was stout and thicker than I remembered;

The giggling face rounder.

Leaving the airport,

He became shy with me and

Ran up to his aunt,

Grabbed her hand.

No way, I thought.

I scooped him up,

And gave him a fart kiss on his belly,

And he laughed,

And had no problem holding my hand after that.

After seven months in Finland

He wasn’t speaking any English.

There were times I had to ask his aunt or his father,

“What’s he saying?”

But I decided:

I’m the mom,

And I’m not going to waste one minute not acting like it.

I’m not going to

Ruminate on

What it means

That I have to ask someone to

Translate for my own son.

No.

Stop.

Act like the mom.

Take him to the bathroom.

Pay for his lunch.

Help him put his shoes on.

Choose his clothes, and help him get dressed.

Don’t stop and think.

No analysis and no self-pity.

(Even jet-lagged.)

Because there he was at a Helsinki park:

Scampering to the top of a small cliff,

The sun in his butter-yellow hair.

He pointed to where he wanted me to stand,

Then leaped off the rock,

Laughing,

His solid body hurtling toward me,

Completely trusting that I’ll catch him.

“Saada minut!” he yelled.

Get me!

I will, buddy.

That’s why I’m here.