It's 2:47 a.m. and I'm sitting gingerly on the edge of my 14-year-old daughter's twin-sized bed. I see her so clearly in the glow of her iPod docking station. Her body is longer than mine now and her pedicured toes -- decorated with pink glitter and little flowers -- poke out from beneath the sheet, almost touching the footboard of the white little-girl bed that seems especially too little-girl on this particular morning.
Later today, Lauren, my "buddy," will board a flight to Paris then a connecting flight to Bremen, Germany: They will be the first legs of a journey that will keep her out of my arms' reach for a year. At this moment, I can't conceive where the time has gone since the days when she rested nightly in my arms, which easily cradled her length and breadth as I sat on the rocking chair in her room, waiting until her breathing was rhythmic enough to lay her in her crib.
Lauren is a Rotary International youth exchange ambassador. It says so on the special pin that decorates the traditional navy blue Rotary jacket she will wear during her travels today and every time she speaks at the weekly meetings she'll attend in Bad Bederkesa, the charming little town where she will spend her first six months with a host family headed by an attorney/bee-keeper and his wife, a social education worker. They will be her "parents" for half of this year abroad. The second half, she'll be living on a cattle farm just off the coast of the North Sea. She is excited. She is ready. I am not.
I don't know if I ever would be ready to say goodbye to this youngest daughter, the one who helped me get through the last time I bid farewell to a daughter, her older sister.
Four years ago, Rachael left our home for a year in Norway. She, too, was a Rotary youth ambassador. It was the experience of a lifetime. She lived with three different families over the course of a year. She became fluent in Norwegian. Traveled Europe. Became even more mature and independent than she was before she left. Made friends with someone from every continent. Amassed a set of life skills that equipped her to thrive as a freshman last year at a college five hours from home -- a college she'll return to in a couple of weeks, leaving me without children to care for for the first time in nearly two full decades.
I'll never forget the day after Rachael left for Norway. Lauren and I were running some errands. I was striving for normalcy but not quite pulling it off. We had parked outside a Hallmark store and I had shut off the car and had paused before opening the door.
I can't really remember what exactly was in my mind. What I do remember so clearly, though, was that Lauren -- 10 years old at the time -- reached over and put her small hand over my larger one and said simply, "It's going to be OK, Mummy. We just have to get used to a new kind of normal."
And, with Lauren's help, I did.
Thanks to Skype and email and long-distance phone service, we stayed in touch with Rachael and vicariously enjoyed all the exciting opportunities she experienced. Before we knew it, a year had passed, summer had come, and Rachael had returned home. And again, before we knew it, just about this time last year, we were saying goodbye a second time as Rachael packed her bags and left for college.
This is the season for goodbyes. We will kiss our little ones' cheeks when they get on the bus for the first day of school. We will bid our older ones "good luck" and "make good choices" as they head off to university. As hard and as tearful as these goodbyes can be, they are the comparatively easy ones. The harder ones come when we know that the goodbyes are permanent -- the kind that we say when we kiss the wrinkled cheek of a parent on his death bed, as I did in April when my father-in-law died after a six-month battle with leukemia. Or the goodbyes we say to a stage of our lives that we've cherished but that slips away with the passage of time.
Ready or not, here they come. Then they go.
Lauren will be fine. I know this. Her ear for music, honed by the piano, French horn and Justin Bieber tunes, will help her master German. Her vivaciousness and wisdom-beyond-her-years will endear her to strangers who will soon become friends. Her smarts and work ethic will make her successful in the rigorous German school system.
As for me, I won't have my buddy to hold my hand, but I have the past experience of knowing that the seasons -- even the seasons for goodbyes -- keep changing. Summer comes.
Karen Kane is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 724-772-9180).