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First Person Why is it so hard to say goodbye to grown children?

Sandi Falconer

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My son and I have just loaded his car for the last time. The holiday with all its beautiful ceremony is long over.

It is 7 o’clock on a winter’s night on the street just outside my house. It’s dark, there is a raw cold, -22 C in fact. There has been a fresh fall of snow and street lights cast long shadows across a newly white world.

My son is leaving to drive west through the night over a mountain pass. There will be blowing snow, black ice, the blinding lights of oncoming traffic. The whole damn nine yards of driving in the Canadian Rockies at night. Anxious to get going, he is seated at the wheel and I reach in from the open passenger’s side door and give him a long embrace. He has muscular shoulders beneath a puffy winter jacket and a man’s smell and I am surprised at myself for worrying that my little kid with tiny arms would never grow strong.

I am standing at the curb as his car pulls away, tires crunching on the snow. His winter-battered car with ruby tail lights goes down to the end of the block to a cul-de-sac, swings around and comes back toward me. As he goes by, I slowly turn to wave at this one-man parade. I am silently saying goodbye. See ya’ soon. Safe journeys. The street light overhead fortunately doesn’t reveal the tears in my eyes, nor can it possibly reveal the less-tangible gap where loneliness is now in permanent residence.

His signal light winks, the little red car turns the corner down at the end of the block and is gone. Just like that.

I am shocked at how empty I feel. This wasn’t in any of the books on how to raise kids. Postpartum depression, it seems, doesn’t just happen at childbirth. Why didn’t somebody tell me it would be like this?

I stand rooted to the spot, energy draining away, leaving cold apathy, and then turn and see my wife, a lone figure, standing at the window. Silhouetted by lamplight from the living room, she too has silently saluted the little parade. Despite the cold I don’t feel much need to move anywhere, really, I just stand there. I glance up and down the city block on which I have lived for more than 30 years. I have no idea why it seems so empty. Winter has turned the trickle of tears on my cheeks to a tiny frozen stream.

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Time passes so very slowly, then it occurs to me that I should do something. Make myself useful. Fill in the gap. Divert myself for heaven’s sake. Nearest at hand is the snow shovel, so I grab it and make another pass up the sidewalk, jabbing ineffectually at bits of snow, trying to clear what is already a cleared sidewalk. This make-work project takes me around the side of the house, past the big juniper where the sparrows sleep and into the backyard. The snow is deeper here and I can see the path the rabbits have made, the snow-capped bird feeder (beloved by the chickadees) hanging in the old crabapple tree and beyond that, the bird bath trimmed with ice.

Less obvious, but clear to me are the ghosts, a thin chimera – such are memories. The garden with its few leafless bushes has become a skating rink and on the ice is a carousel of children laughing and skating ‘round and ‘round and ‘round. Their coats and scarfs are bright colours and the scraping blades flash in the light from a couple of yard lights hung from extension cords. Shadows dance out across the snow on gangly legs and are taken by the dark.

Over by the garage near the bare branches of the lilac bush, and despite the snow, it is summer in a long-forgotten year. There is green grass and a children’s swing set painted blue and bright red. Sitting on the seats, legs flailing, the occupants pump furiously to see who can go the highest. A dog is generating a raucous accompaniment of non-stop barking. But there is, of course, no sound at all. Memories, I can now say with certainty, don’t make noise. And they can’t give you an ice cream kiss on the cheek no matter how much I wish it otherwise.

Above my head through the calligraphy of the apple tree branches are clouds made bright by the reflected light of the city. Beyond that is a hazy full moon. In the yard it is as if a spell has been cast. A thick blanket of snow covers everything, the picnic bench, the lawn, the upturned plastic chairs. It would not surprise me to find that I have become one of those stone garden sculptures myself, snow covered, a statue in the park. Like a magic powder, the snow has reduced all to a graceful, cold somnambulance. We are all asleep, waiting for that child’s big hug, or a single kiss to awake.

And so despite the layers of clothing, the winter cold begins to creep down into my fingertips, chills my nose. Rudely extracted from my reverie, my life, which seems quite colourless, continues. I much prefer the memories and my hyperactive mind that is restive at the best of times is now in rebellion. Unwilling to accept the cruel separation that has just taken place, it gathers itself like the shaman time travellers, takes a long leap into the cold air to fly out beyond the city limits, far across the moonlit Prairies and farther yet to the gateway into the mountains. There, on the long dark ribbon of highway, its headlights bravely lighting the way west, is a little red car. My one-man parade.

Safe journeys, young man. Safe journeys.

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Lorne Perry lives in Calgary.

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