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The back-to-school blues

With his granddaughter about to start junior kindergarten, Steve Watson wonders, why it is such a struggle to let go?

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

The first day of a new school year is fast approaching, but this one is totally different because my oldest grandchild will be starting junior kindergarten. I'm feeling blue because my wife and I won't be babysitting her one to two days a week like we've been doing for the past few years. My wife tells me to get over it because it's the natural order of things. The logical left side of my brain understands, but the emotional right side keeps screaming, "no!"

We bonded quickly and deeply because she spent her first six weeks in our house with our daughter and son-in-law while they waited for their new house to be finished. There were many idyllic days when Grandmom and I would take turns rocking her to sleep on the swing or hammock in our backyard. I moped around for days when they left to build their new life. We were excited when we started regularly babysitting her when she was 15 months old.

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Prior to this new presence in our life, Grandmom and I imagined ourselves vacationing in warmer climes for an extended period each winter. However, those plans changed because we missed her so much whenever we went away. After a longer-than-normal absence when she was two years old, she said "I miss you," in such a forlorn little voice that I had to give her a big hug so she wouldn't see me wiping away tears.

We decided two weeks was the longest we could go without seeing her. We acknowledged the days we spent with her were some of the best days of our lives, driving from one adventure to the other in the "granddad car" filled with car seats, strollers, toys, snacks and love. I now fully connected with the saying "A grandchild fills a space in your heart that you never knew was empty."

My heart melted the first time she called me "gwandad." I secretly hoped she would always call me gwandad, even if she majored in English at university.

Bob Dylan wasn't referring to hanging out with grandchildren when he penned the lyrics "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," in the song My Back Pages. But those words capture how I feel with her. I felt younger every time I played with her and her beloved stuffed animals, who I brought to life with silly voices and distinctive personalities as I did years ago with her mother. I also embraced her endless fascination with animals, birds and bugs. I even leave spider webs intact in our enclosed porch because she loves to examine them.

She was extremely passionate about climbing escalators when she was two years old. I believe we set an unofficial world record one day when we rode up and down an escalator 13 times.

I found two local McDonald's with indoor play lands and was soon clambering up to the top of the two-storey site with her. However, she now refers to the other location with its three-storey spaceship design as the "real" McDonald's since it's more challenging and interesting for her. Bad news for me since it feels like special-forces training if I try to twist my tall, stiff, old body through the labyrinth of tunnels …definitely Tylenol time!

As fatalistic as Grandmom is about our granddaughter starting school, I know she will miss the cuddles while napping with her or listening to her purr softly like a kitten when she is snug in a towel after a warm bubble bath, sensing she is deeply loved.

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Why am I struggling so much to let go at this stage in my life? My view is that parents need their kids to grow up and become independent. It's a grind caring and providing for them. And they want to ensure their kids become successful adults. Besides, how do they expect to realize the joy of becoming grandparents without this type of progression?

However, grandparents don't see the grandkids as often, and we're not up at all hours of the night with them. Our mantra is "quality over quantity." Our mission is to breathe some magic into their lives and the unexpected bonus is the magic flows back to us many times over. A sufficient dose of magic creates a state of bliss I call the "grandparent high."

My heart still soars when she runs toward me when she and Grandmom spot me from a distance in the mall or at the park. I savour these moments knowing it won't always be this way.

I'm like a surfer trying to ride that perfect wave forever. I don't want you to change, little girl, because I can't imagine you getting any cuter and I don't want to get any older. Let's agree to stay the same forever. But I see the wave breaking and hear her imaginary voice saying, "Sorry, Gwandad … I have to grow up!"

I'm sure her wonderful two-year-old brother will be busted up in his own way when he wants to know where his older sister is during the first week of school. We will continue to build lots of wonderful memories with him since we'll go through the same process with him in only two short years.

I search for little signs that seeing an older version of my granddaughter less often will still be special. I was recently hiding from her in a photo booth in the mall when she opened the curtain and asked me, "Is God in there?" Hmm … maybe we will have some cool discussions as you get older! I already see signs of special talents in her that are exciting to contemplate.

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But I know my nature. I'll have a lump in my throat on the first day of school. Perhaps it will be my turn to feel forlorn and silently mouth the words, "I miss you."

Steve Watson lives in Markham, Ont.

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