Friday, September 7, 2012

Dear Alyce

First day.

Dear Alyce,

We often write letters to people when we aren't quite sure how to say what we're feeling in person. Or, maybe when we really want to make sure that we're heard. We talk a lot, don't we? Sometimes you do most of the talking, other times it's me who can't stop going on and on. Do you like our conversations? Do you wish they were mostly about princesses and rainbows and sparkles, and less about responsibilities and manners and growing up? You might, and I'd understand that. You're four (and a half) and your primary job in life is to surround yourself with things that make you smile. On most days I want you to concern yourself with imaginary friends, fairy tales, dress-up clothes, and dancing, but sometimes I have to direct your attention to things that don't at first seem like any fun at all.

Like school.

You and I are alike in more ways than I ever could have imagined. We both adore moving our bodies to music and singing loudly in the car. And I think given the freedom to do so, you and I could spend the rest of our days wandering around the city, bouncing from bakery to bakery, delirious from all those quality carbohydrates. I think you'd choose chocolate cupcakes every time, and I would probably alternate between an airy pastry of some kind and a good baguette with some chocolate. We also both love so hard that sometimes we get all wound up in the intensity of those feelings. Because we love so much we get hurt a lot, not in the grand, dramatic kind of heartache, but by those smaller (though powerful) wounds. And don't think I haven't noticed how much time you spend worrying about other people's feelings. I could write a book on that skill, and I'll lend it to you some time, though I'd rather not. And it's funny, isn't it, how we can so immediately become wrapped up in each others feelings?

Off to school.

This happened a few mornings ago. It was your first day of senior kindergarten and your first day at a new school. Holy cow, that's big. Of course you were a junior kindergartener last year, but somehow that seems so beginner, so part-time (and to think you were only three years old)! But this year is different and no matter our preparations, it caught all of us by surprise, taking the wind out of us a bit on Tuesday morning. Now you are four (and a half) and you're ready for the big-time (or the full-time, at least). I have been so excited for you, eager to help you pick out your favourite backpack, lunch bag, and back-to-school gold sparkle shoes. Now if only you'd put them on your feet instead of carrying them around all day. (That you carry your special treasures with you at all times in bags or in your hands is one of the things about you that sneaks into my heart, never to leave.)

They are awfully nice shoes.

But Tuesday morning was a tough one. I had stayed up late the night before making you a special back to school card and planning a chocolate chip pancake breakfast. I even put the good linens on the table. I am a hopeless (hopeless!) romantic when it comes to school. No matter the rough ending of my dissertation, school has always filled me with the same kind of joy that Mondays bring me, though on a much bigger scale. I love the potential of school, of all the things you can learn and all the ways your world can change. When I was younger, though a bit older than you, I'd daydream about running away to a school for dancers, or a private school where I could wear a uniform (influenced as I was by Fame and Dead Poet's Society). When I watch you take for your first steps toward school, my heart beats a bit faster because I can already see how much you and I are alike. I can already see how you look ahead to your own transformations, even at four (and a half). You are so ready to step out into that world.

That first day I was eager, I often am, and I was unprepared for your reaction that morning. Of course it really isn't a surprise that you rejected my card and refused chocolate chip pancakes. You were hurting and scared and all the while you were watching me, aware of how you were hurting my feelings and caught between wanting to make me happy and wanting to put your foot down in the face of your big first day. I am not going to school, mama. Not even once, you declared repeatedly. Not that you said much at all. You marched around the house trying to show me how much you were hurting by trying to convince me that you didn't care about anything at all. But you did care. You were missing your old friends, worried about making news ones. I tried to be brave in the midst of all these hurt feelings, but mostly I was disappointed that you didn't like my card or my pancakes.

Of course, and it was plain to see, my hurt feelings weren't really about you turning your nose at my card, but were about that panic settling in under my skin, that realization that you were leaving. Until now you've always been mine at home, even when you spent time in that other world. No matter anything else, you're still mine, and I'll hold on as tight as I can, even when I'm not paying attention to myself. Because if I had been paying attention I would have seen that the card, the linens, the new school clothes were really about me avoiding an enormous sense of grief over my first child growing older, and happier and stronger and funnier and sillier. Yes, of course, I'm grateful that I have the blessings of a healthy family and my grief isn't over the sadness of ill health or tragic circumstances. But it is still a grieving. Watching you grow is a complicated sport. I am cheering for you, encouraging you to reach further and faster, but I also kind of just want you to stay behind with me.

No wait, I don't want you to stay behind at all, I want you to move forward. And I'll always be here if you want to fill me in on the details. Like I said, it's complicated.

All of those feelings emerged when, a few moments before it was time to leave, you found your way into the kitchen where I was nursing my own sad heart and asked me if you could have some breakfast. I asked you what you wanted, and you only replied, I want you, mama, before running into me so hard I almost lost my balance. Your emotions, like mine, had finally come to the surface and you were able to just cry for a few moments, exposed as we were. I scooped you up on my lap and we sat for a few minutes, maybe more, just hanging out with each others fears. And then that was it. We love hard, we get hurt hard, but then we just get things done, you and me. You quickly ate your pancake (the ones I had planned the night before) and we all set off for school, you, me, Shira and Papa. Somehow I just knew that I should pack your back-to-school card, and I'm glad I did. You showed it proudly to your new teacher and have barely let go of it since.

There are many good things that come out of such intensity, so please don't ever apologize for that. Do apologize to your sister, however, who four days later is still completely devastated by your departure each morning. I guess you've got it all figured out now, but Shira still feels a bit lost. Thank you for giving her such big hugs after school each day. It brings her so much joy, which helps take some of the edge off of the fact that you run to her first after school, not me.  I don't mind waiting.

She waits all day long for you to come home from school.

I'm not sure if you'll remember this, but the first thing you said to me after school on Tuesday was this: This was the best day ever. Ever.  I think our work here is done. We are quite the team, aren't we?



  1. Oh dear. I can't stop crying.
    So lovely, so laid bare, such transparency of the momma's heart.
    We miss Alyce and her momma around here that's for sure.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you so much! It took me all week to get them out, but I'm so glad I did. I hope Alyce reads it one day.

  3. See if you can find the song Best Day by "Dala" (not sure of spelling...heard it on CBC today and want to sing it to my kids every morning and night. This is beautiful and I'm crying, too...we really send our kids to school too early, don't we? I think you'd understand some of the heartache I experienced last week as the TEACHER of kindergarten kids...lump-in-the-throat heartache. Little ones are so perfect in their imperfect way.

  4. I am at the grandmother stage and I am also in tears over your beautiful words - what a great mom with such understanding of your child and those complex emotions when facing something new - bravo! Patti

  5. KGH, I am still weeping over that song. I will have to learn that and start singing it to my girls. We do send them off to early, it seems. Last year in JK she was only THREE! My wee Alyce.

    And thank you, Patti, for the kind words.