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Gifts to be treasured and released

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I didn’t cry on my daughter’s first day of school. Instead, I celebrated her new step forward. With a toddler at home and a baby on the way, I counted my blessings that we’d gotten a spot at all in a Czech kindergarten. I was thankful that Anna Lee could be in a supportive environment with similar-age kids. The fact that she’d get to reinforce her second “mother” tongue was an added bonus. Anna was on her way to being bilingual by the time her younger brother started his first year of kindergarten, and her eagerness to show off her school took precedence over my motherly anxiety about my children growing up. But, it hasn’t always been so easy to let them lead the way.

When Anna was eight months old, we were living in the US, and her travel-loving father decided we should see the Southern Hemisphere while it was still remotely close, before our anticipated move back to the Czech Republic. One of our mutual teacher friends in Prague was Ecuadorian, and when Radek talked about visiting South America, she encouraged us to visit her homeland. Although at the time she was living in Amsterdam getting a second degree, her parents and younger brother in Ecuador encouraged our trip. My parents enthusiastically agreed to watch Anna Lee for the two weeks we’d be gone. Radek bought the plane tickets before I could change my mind. Hesitantly, I left Anna in my mother’s arms and promised to try to enjoy the chance to be together with Radek without playing my new-mother role.

It was surprisingly easy to fall back into the rhythm of traveling and seeking out adventure without worrying where we’d find a spot to change a diaper on the go or wondering if the water would be safe for an infant to drink. Apart from the first few days of altitude-induced headaches and diarrhea, we adjusted quickly to being back on the road. In my backpack, I carried a small album with recent pictures of Anna that we showed to fellow travelers and looked at each night before sleep. We explored exotic butterflies in the cloud forests, rode rooftop on a rural train and took a bike and kayaking trip through the jungle. Through each part of the journey, we checked in with my parents, either by email or from a local telephone center. Cell phones with internet access weren’t common then. My parents sent a picture of Anna eating her first corn on the cob and another of her surrounded by a group of their over-forty-year-old friends at a dinner party. Anna was clearly having her own great vacation.

Still my heart was torn. I felt guilty for leaving a child that was so young I could have still been nursing her. I worried that something would happen while we were gone. I also worried something might happen to us. At once newly adventurous and constantly distressed, I confided in Radek who advised me to relax and enjoy the chance to explore another culture. Meanwhile, our surrogate parents in Ecuador fed us local specialties like shrimp ceviche. They also meted out cautionary advice against walking in parts of Quito at night or storing our backpacks out of sight on regional buses. We inadvertently did both and luckily escaped having only one backpack and some camping gear stolen. But those were risks we took when we decided to travel. We had gotten lucky and would be wiser in the future.

During our farewell meal with our friend’s parents, table talk turned to the topic of Anna and how eager we were to be with her again. Our friend’s mother turned to me and said in Spanish, “Our children are not ours. They are gifts to be treasured and then to be released.” Speaking as the mother of three grown children, I knew she had the wisdom of years behind her words. Still, at that moment I believed that Anna needed me as much as I needed her, and I couldn’t wait to get back and return to my role as a mother.

When we returned, a day late due to delayed flights, I was beside myself with the anticipation of seeing Anna again. I tiptoed into her room at my parents’ house where she was just waking from her morning nap. My mother had followed me into the room, and Anna’s outstretched arms reached past me to her grandmother. I left the room crying. After a few minutes of warming up, Anna acquiesced to my maternal claims and sat happily enough in my lap. Seven years later, I don’t think she holds any grudges that I left her as an infant with her grandparents for two weeks. Instead, to this day she and my parents have a special relationship that seems unbelievably close considering the limited times a year they are together.

Soon after we returned from our South American trip, we got an email announcing the upcoming marriage of our Ecuadorian friend to a Scottish man that she’d met while studying in Amsterdam. Later, our friend emailed from Scotland with pictures of their new infant son. At our going-away party in the US, we met her younger brother who’d recently moved from Ecuador to Washington D.C. to practice architecture. He was the last child to leave his home country and would soon marry an American-born Portuguese woman. With three children and several grandchildren living on two different continents, I wondered if our friend’s mother has kept her peace. She seemed so confident and calm relaying her pearl of wisdom, when all the while she must have known that her children were soon taking steps to build their lives far away from their homeland. I wonder how I’ll keep mine when the time comes.

Last Wednesday I was driving home from dropping my children off at school, when I heard a morning radio report on a tragic Swiss bus crash that resulted in the deaths of 28 people, including 22 schoolchildren from two neighboring village schools in Belgium. The bus was bringing children and teachers back from a school ski trip and had run into a pull-off wall in the tunnel at full speed. The children were 11 and 12 years old. There was no immediate explanation for the crash and no other vehicle involved. The crash was one of the worst road accidents in Switzerland’s history. I had no words for the despair I felt when I heard the news. When I read later news reports, I learned that the children’s parents had traveled to the site of the accident and had even walked through the tunnel. The local Swiss police chief commented on the families’ bravery. Belgium declared a national day of mourning. The international community reacted with shock and schools held moments of silence.

At the time I heard the news, my daughter’s school had just sent a group of children on a ski trip in the Czech Krkonose Mountains. When I arrived at my neighbor’s house after dropping the children off, she had also heard the report, and we spent a few quiet moments thinking about the accident. It was a horrific tragedy. We couldn’t do anything to change that fact that something that should never have happened had happened, but we could hold our children close and love them well, while we still had the chance. We owed it to the memories of all children who’ve lost their lives, and out of respect for parents and families who have to survive in the aftermath of losing a child. As a parent, we spend much of our lives trying to protect our children from harm and learning step-by-step how to give them independence to forage their own paths, but sometimes even our best efforts aren’t enough.

Next month I have a plane ticket to meet a friend in Barcelona. She’s flying from Bogota, Columbia and I’m flying from Prague. It’s a girls’ weekend. We’ll be without children and on our own. For me, it’ll be the first time in years. I’m scared, but also excited. If I want my children to live their own lives, I owe it to myself to live mine as well.

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