TELLURIDE – I stand at the bus stop, squinting towards the point on the horizon where the road disappears over the hill.
Breathe, I tell myself. She’s fine.
Yet I can’t tear my gaze away from the direction the school bus will approach from, any minute now. I can’t shake the perturbations rattling through my head – the what-ifs, the worst-case scenarios, those gnawing parental imaginings that depict bad things happening to a child. Bad things like my kindergartener getting off at the wrong bus stop.
Craig escorted her to the bus after school less than an hour ago, telling the driver this was her first time riding the bus home. We had reminded her not to get off until she recognized her stop, where I would be waiting. She will be fine! I scold my uneasy mind. But, the quivery echo in my head continues, where is that bus?
Sending our firstborn to school for the first time this fall has given me many opportunities to practice positive thinking, pranayama breathing and optimistic visualization – techniques I employ to quiet the anxious-mother bleating that seems to engulf my consciousness whenever Elle marches off to the next milestone in her young life.
These first weeks of kindergarten have given me an array of things to fixate on: Will she remember how to get to her classroom? Turn in her homework? What if she tucks the back of her skirt into her tights? Or drops her lunch tray?
Perhaps it is natural for a mother of young children to quietly obsess about the potential pitfalls they face with each new experience. Whatever will they do when I’m not there to guide and protect them?
As I stand at the bus stop, waiting for a big, yellow bus to deliver my 5-year-old, I wonder, what would my children do if I were no longer here?
Time passes irregularly in the realm of parenthood – the minutes are long, but the years are short. One day you are bouncing a baby on your knee, and the next you are walking her to the bus stop on her first day of school. The time it takes to bathe them, help them into pajamas, scrub their faces and teeth, read them books, sing them songs, and tuck them into bed a dozen times in a single night (after requests for water, brighter nightlights, spider checks and the like) can feel like a decade. But the months pass at warp speed, and with luck I can contemplate the minutes that comprise them whenever I get around to folding the mountains of laundry left in their wake.
I wonder if this dichotomous separation of time – the long minutes, the fleeting years – leaves me not mindful enough of the precious time we have left together.
Our extended community has shared heartbreak –more than our fair share, it seems lately – through the far-too-many untimely losses in recent months. My heart aches for all of those taken too soon, but especially for the mothers and grandmothers who have had to leave their stations early, who can no longer wipe jelly from their children’s faces or unconsciously reach for their grandchildren’s hands when crossing the street.
I mourn for the matriarchs who have had to leave lessons untaught, and words of wisdom unspoken. As I think these thoughts, waiting for Elle to come down the steps of the school bus that has finally arrived, I feel heavy with the burden of knowing that just as I cannot live forever, I cannot be present to guide and protect my children on every step of their journey.
Then, as if the cosmos has cruelly decided to prove this life lesson, Elle does not emerge from the bus.
Elle is not on the bus.
Elle is not on the school bus!
My body is paralyzed as my mind flips through its Rolodex file of “terrible things that could be happening to my child at this very moment” – the least terrible of which is that she is lost and scared and wondering where I am.
Just as I feel the sickly rush of adrenaline course into my bloodstream, just as the full realization hits me that I have no idea where my 5-year-old is, and no way to protect her from her fear and confusion (among other terrible things I am starting to imagine) my neighbor’s car pulls into my driveway.
I want to cry as Elle jauntily emerges from the car.
I fly from the bus stop to our house, where Elle seems unperturbed.
“I saw her walking down the road,” my neighbor explains, “and knew she didn’t belong there!”
My gratitude is pure and unadulterated, although I can’t say much more than “thank you” to this neighbor, who, I realize, did what any neighbor would have done. He protected my child when I couldn’t.
Wrapping my eldest daughter in my arms, relief blankets my consciousness. This is why we live here, I remind myself. My neighbors, friends, coworkers and acquaintances will be here when I cannot. This is a community that looks after one another.
This is a community that looks after its children.
Author’s note: I am resurrecting “Raising Elle” because I have realized this is one way, my unique way, to remain mindful of the achingly beautiful “long minutes” I have to spend with my children. Sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of our journey – from giving birth in France to welcoming our second child into the world to Elle’s brush with death and my father’s struggles with alcoholism – has helped me cope with all the sticky realities connected to parenthood, and life in general. Thank you sharing this journey with me.