My daughter is on the telephone, and I'm holding on tight. "It's my birthday soon," she says. She will be turning 21 but won't be home for a celebration. I'll be lucky if she answers the phone.
Conversations with my daughter are few and far between these days. The northern bush is not kind to cellphone communication.
For the past three years, her summer job tree planting has meant sporadic calls. I have learned to wait patiently until her day off, when she travels to the nearest town, for the phone to ring.
I'm not just uncomfortable with the lack of contact; I'm in withdrawal. During the school year, I get my reassurance, albeit virtual, from texting. "Where r u?" "LMK when u r home." "R u ok?"
Letting go has never been easy for me, although it's something I should be used to by now.
Even before tree planting, Melissa was not home for her birthday. Annual trips to summer camp in Quebec, where she canoed along endless tree-lined lakes, replaced Happy Birthday balloons and streamers at home. I understand the pull of nature; still, she is more like her grandmother, who travelled the world with a knapsack, than I.
At the end of her first year studying film at Queen's University, she planned on working to help pay for tuition fees. "Why should I get a job in the city?" she asked.
I could think of many reasons for ditching her tree-planting idea. Travel costs more than $1,000, a tent $400, steel-toed boots $150, helmet $30, tree-planting shovel $80, sore back, blistered feet, cut hands, mosquitoes, black flies, cold showers and bears.
The pay rate of 10 cents per planted seedling was hardly incentive, but to Melissa it was, and away she went up North.
She left sunny Southern Ontario only to start planting in the snow. "We wear our clothes to bed," she said. I was quietly pleased about that. The co-ed work environment has been known to sprout many romantic relationships.
During one phone conversation when she seemed even farther away, I told her flat out to come home. On a weekend visit to the closest town, the planting crew ventured into the only place open late at night. I was concerned about her being in a strip joint until I heard she was hit by a beer bottle.
The crew was up on the dance floor when an enthusiastic, but likely tipsy, planter flung a hand her way and hit her in the mouth. After $6,000 in orthodontics, she now had a souvenir chip taken out of her front tooth. If I could have reached through the phone line, scooped her up and brought her back, I would have. But I found out there is only so much a mother can do over the telephone.
A friend of mine had some advice for me. "Let her live," he said. "If she goes through life doing nothing, she won't have stories to tell her children and grandchildren." His words carried weight, especially since he was struggling with his wife dying from cancer.
I am finding that I take a step back so my daughter can take a step forward. Eventually, she found a small-town dentist to patch her tooth and he kindly did it without charge.
I don't know how much influence I have on my daughter any more, but she does on me. Recently, when a large tree in our backyard was shading the new deck, I took steps to fix the issue.
"You are not seriously cutting down that tree are you? How could you?" she cried when she found out. I told her that if I chopped it down now before it grew too big, I wouldn't need a permit.
My daughter plants 2,500 to 3,000 seedlings a day. Her body is scraped and scabbed and callused. She shamed me into cancelling my arborist appointment and I'm glad.
Once again at the end of the school year, I drove her to the airport. I paid for her overweight bags and we said our goodbyes for the summer. She was flying into Winnipeg, then catching a seven-hour Greyhound bus north to Swan River, Man., near the Saskatchewan boundary. She is getting a course in geography, sociology and personal growth as she plants trees across Canada.
When the phone rang the other day, I knew it was her. She tells me she is in Jasper, Alta., pitching a tent during a few days off. "Hi mom, how are you?" she asks.
I'm fine. I miss her. She says she has started heli-planting. "I'm picked up by helicopter, mom, and dropped down on my piece of land."
Exciting as it sounds to her, I'm horrified. I suggest that she can always catch a flight back to Toronto to our little square bungalow on a tidy, suburban-like street. I know the answer, but I still ask.
She tells me how satisfied she feels at the end of the day when she has planted her trees. She knows she is doing a good thing, and in my mind I let go of her for another day.
"What do you want for your birthday?" I ask.
She says anything is nice to receive in the bush. "Surprise me."
She gives me an address in Grande Prairie, Alta., where she will be planting for at least a month. Chances are her gift will arrive before she heads off to somewhere else.
Happy 21st birthday, baby. Mama is so proud of you.
Theresa Suzuki is a photo editor at The Globe and Mail and lives in Toronto.