It’s just before dawn on Saturday. I’m sitting on my patio, listening to the call of a mourning dove, a steaming cup of Cuban roast in front of me beside my yellow pad of paper. The blooming perennials along the driveway are giving off a fragrance as delicious as the coffee I bought yesterday morning in the Strip District.
I have the sense that all is right with the world and it’s mostly because my two daughters are upstairs, caught in a jumble of their respective sheets and comforters, sleeping in their beds. I know because I peeked.
I had padded softly down the hall and opened their doors to check on them today, just as I had so many times when they were younger. It used to be that I could see them in the soft glow of their night lights — a horse for Lauren, a crescent moon for Rachael. This morning, I saw their faces — not all that much different from their little-girl faces — in the glow of their Macs charging on their night stands.
It’s been a year since this happened last. Rachael, 20, is a college student in D.C., a rising junior who stayed in the District this summer as a Capitol Hill intern. And, Lauren, 15, has been away for a year in Germany as a Rotary International exchange student. Except for a handful of nights when Rachael came home to visit, both their beds have been empty.
I woke up this morning with a thought — a memory.
I’m in the backyard of my childhood home, standing barefoot in the grass, wearing a damp swim suit. Just out of my reach are lightning bugs flying in the lowest level of tree branches, teasing me with their intermittent flashes of light. I can barely see them against the darkening summer sky but I launch into the air, my arms outstretched and I bring my cupped hands together, capturing one.
Carefully, I open my church-door thumbs and I see it, lighting the cavity of my hands like a Christmas tree in our otherwise dark game-room. I marvel at this miracle of nature with his built-in torch. Then I set him free. There’s no choice, really. I could put him in a glass jar with air holes on the lid but I know that by morning, he’ll be dead. Or I can let him go. Either way, this fascinating creature can’t be mine but for a minute.
Last night, we sat around the dining room table at 9:30, eating spaghetti with my spicy red sauce and Parma sausages and bread dipped in flavored olive oil. It was a menu requested by Lauren for her first night home after her year abroad. She loved her schnitzel and her brotchen (little German sandwiches), but she wanted her tongue to tingle again with the heat of red pepper flakes and I was more than willing to make that happen.
Rachael had come into Pittsburgh from Washington on the Megabus late Thursday night and we had shopped Friday morning for the makings of one of Lauren’s favorite meals. Then, 12 hours later, we picked her up at Pittsburgh International, the terminus to a year of adventure that I had heard about and seen only in Facetime snippets.
It was a year of accomplishment and growth for Lauren. She mastered the German language and passed an array of challenging subjects in the highest level of public education offered by her second home country. She skiied the Alps and toured a half-dozen of the storied cities of Europe.
She made attachments to other exchange students from around the globe and built friendships in her coastal school along the North Sea a couple of hours from Hamburg.
She fell in love with two host families and suffered the stinging losses of goodbyes — the first one a permanent one, to a “mom” (Inge) who died of cancer; then goodbye-for-now to Inge’s husband, Uwe, her second host parents, Kirsten and Martin, and her “siblings” Anna-Lena and Lennard.
It’s often said “you can’t go home again.” Pardon me, Mr. Wolfe, but I beg to differ. I get the truth of his message — that life is ever unfolding in a way that doesn’t allow us to hold onto the past. But we can go home again. My girls have. They’re here this morning. In fact, the shower is now running as Lauren gets ready for a day of reunions and I hear Rachael stirring in her bedroom.
Will Rachael return to D.C. in a few days? Yes. Will Lauren be different in ways I have yet to experience? Sure. But, like the firefly I held in my little-girl hands, I can take hold of these moments — even if only for a minute — and look at them and enjoy them and marvel at them before they pass, before they fly away into the night sky until the next one comes along, lighting my gingerly cupped hands.
Karen Kane is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-772-9180).