Jun 20 2012

The Hand-Off

They hoisted their heavy cartables up on to their back, the lift and twist on to one arm and then reaching the other back, blindly, to find the strap and slip beneath it. It’s a motion they enact several times a day without thinking. Each time I see it, I wince. Their school bags are so heavy. The number of books and notebooks the girls are required to cart back and forth, daily, is pretty serious. Some days it feels like Short-pants‘ bag weighs more than the pack I carried on the Camino.

They trampled down the four flights of worn, wooden steps and out the door to the street. The morning was fresh, a downpour during the night had cleared the air and cleansed the streets. Short-pants grabbed one of my hands and Buddy-roo seized the other, sandwiching me between them.

We talked through the order of events for the day: how I’d come back to school to help out with the line rehearsal for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the year-end production of their theater atelier in which I was also implicated, having volunteered to create and manage the changing of sets via Powerpoint presentation; how our “sitter” would come to get Short-pants and sweep her off to an orchestra rehearsal; how Buddy-roo would go home with a friend because I had an appointment, how the sitter would pick her up later and get them dinner; how the rest of the week’s homework had to get done early because of the school play. Every day has been like this, a full schedule of meetings and hand-offs, the three of us shuffling around to all the final rehearsals for theater, orchestra and tap-dance performances that culminate during these final weeks of June.

It was perhaps not the best planning that De-facto would leave Paris the day after I returned from Spain. I’d hoped to be on the Camino few days longer, but the reality of my responsibilities stepped into the spotlight and delivered a long monologue about how I’d been away already a luxurious amount of time and I had no right to even think of sulking a moment about returning home a few days earlier than my original plan. And by the time I got to León, I missed my family something fierce. I started to dream about the girls throwing their thin, pale arms around me, the sweet smell of their breath, and their soft, smooth, hands in mine.

Apparently they missed me, too. The day before I returned home I got a message on my voicemail from Buddy-roo, describing what had been the “worst day of her life” and how she wished I’d come home. Once I was in the door, after two days of train travel to get there, De-facto appeared with a small tub of a water and a sponge, in homage to my experience at the Ermita de San Nicolas, and washed my weary pilgrim feet. The next day, however, he put his own feet on an airplane and left me in charge in Paris.

After weeks of walking slowly through life, I was immediately asked to sprint. The multi-tasking, order-barking, for the third time please brush your teeth, up-in-the-morning-out-the-door routine a stark contrast to the contemplative preparation of my backpack each day before setting off to walk on my own. The fetching and feeding of children, the hither and yonder to get them to this and that rehearsal, catching up with the details of our household, resuming my professional duties, let alone catching up with any friends put many things on the plate that I had so thoroughly emptied during my walking sabbatical.

This is probably just what St. James had ordered for me. I’d been gone for nearly a month and I’d forgotten how to be a parent. Had De-facto been around, I’d have let him keep the lead role. In his immediate and complete absence, I was forced to remember how and when to cook for the kids, how to help them stay on top of their homework, how to motivate them to do the chores that earn their allowance, how to read with them a bedtime and sing them soothing songs to coax them to sleep.

I did, however, forget to suggest a bath, and the girls went for a good long stretch without one. The day after my return, I’d washed and dried every towel we own. Nearly a week later I noticed they were still perfectly folded on the towel rack, untouched.

Maybe there were a few other things I forgot about mothering: like how to bury my nose in my computer, or how to send texts on my phone on the walk home from school, how to snap at them sharply when I’m distracted or frustrated. I’m hoping these might remain absent from my fashion of parenting.

Especially the electronic part. I see so many people on the street, walking and tapping their thumbs on their smartphones, oblivious to the friends beside them and the world around them. If this is the only thing I learn from the camino – when you walk, just walk – it’d be enough. How good it feels to stop the constant multi-tasking and just be with the sights and sounds of even an urban stroll, to be fully present with my daughters, but also with myself. My feet are now in street shoes rather than hiking boots, stepping on pavement rather than a dirt track or a hiking trail, but why should that make a difference?

Last night, a friend helped us out, fetching Buddy-roo at the cabinet médical after a routine eye exam to take her to a tap-dance rehearsal. Short-pants and I, after our own eye check-ups, went back to school to attend a presentation about the class project, an imaginary overland voyage through Europe to Russia. The kids learned a number of songs during their pretend travels, and they lined up in the front of the room to sing them to us enthusiastically.

I scanned the group of long tall bodies, remembering when Short-pants and her classmates were squat and miniature, marveling at how they’ve all grown up. It dawned on me that this was the end of their time together in the primary school. Next year they’ll move up to the collège, with the more independent and demanding schedule of middle school, and probably a heavier book bag.

But last night they were still kids, an innocent, exuberant chorus, trusting each other, their teachers, and all the parents in the room. I hadn’t expected the rush of nostalgia prompted by the sight of these now-bigger little people collected together, about to walk into the next stage of their life. I looked around and saw that I was not the only mother with her hand on her chest and a tear on her cheek, that others were equally moved by this moment.

We’ve walked our children to this point, held their hands, juggled schedules to get them to all the places they needed to go to be able to be right here, now, with everything to look forward to. They’re almost out of our grasp, which is why it’s so important to cherish those precious moments when they still offer up a small, soft hand on the way to school, and why I’m so glad I came back home to do just that.