I missed my kids’ first day of school last year. My hometown of Albany, Oregon was one of the best places to see the total solar eclipse of 2017 and so instead of walking my kids to their first day of school, I watched the eclipse with my dad and sister. I don’t regret it, because it was amazing. But it meant that Shawn did the first day of school by himself. He was a capable father, so this wasn’t a huge deal, and he texted me photos of the kids walking to school with their friends that morning.
I don’t have our text exchange saved, but I do remember we discussed exactly how Claire was going to do her hair and whether we should let Austin go to school wearing something that we both thought was ridiculous. Shawn definitely texted me a photo of their lunches prepared on the counter and I loved getting the play-by-play of what happened that morning.
Do you know what? That’s what I missed the most on the first day of school this year. I didn’t really miss the fact that Shawn wasn’t there to take photos or talk to the kids about working hard at school. I mean, I missed that, but it wasn’t what hurt my heart. What made me deeply sad was thinking about all of the things that we did together on the first day of school – the lengthy discussions we had about backpacks and new shoes and other needs our kids had. It wasn’t interesting, really, and it wasn’t usually fun. But it was the stuff that life is made of. I missed it.
It’s strange, I guess, that my overwhelming emotion wasn’t sadness for the kids. I guess I saw their shining faces and hopeful smiles and knew that really, they would be okay. Their teachers and their school wrapped their arms around them last year, and I know it will be the same this year. So I wasn’t as worried about them. I spent the weekend grieving what I was missing instead.
I was missing a happy marriage. Not the kind where everything goes smoothly and no one ever yells, because that wasn’t us. But the kind where you catch each other’s eyes at least a few times every day because your kids are impossibly cute or impossibly maddening. The kind where you debate whether it’s okay to send your kid to school with a lunch made up entirely of carbohydrates or one that contains multiple items that do not come from nature. The kind where you brush past each other in the kitchen when you’re cleaning up after dinner and say, “mmmm” just so the other person knows that the desire is still there.
The start of school reminds me of all that was normal. It doesn’t remind me of the big events we attended or the great parties that we threw. It reminds me of the daily life Shawn and I lived together and the small victories we celebrated each day. It reminds me of him.
Maybe my friend Mark knew that I’d be feeling this way or maybe he just wanted to reach out on a day he anticipated might be tough for me. “Would you like to come over on the first day of school?” Mark texted me a few weeks ago. “We can make waffles and hang out together. I know it might not be an easy morning, so we would love to help you make new memories.”
“100% yes,” I texted back.
And so today, on the first day of school, I found myself walking across the alley with my three kids for some waffles and some company.
Mark didn’t disappoint us. We had waffles and eggs and all sorts of toppings. The big kids talked all about the first day of school and Tommy just kept screaming “I’m in PRE-K!” over and over. Mark and I chatted and as I always do in his house, I felt right at home.
Afterwards, we went out on their front stoop and took photos of our kids. The smiles were real. Everyone was really excited for school. At the end, Mark and I each posed with our own kids. I wasn’t sure about this photo – not sure how I felt about taking photos without Shawn, not sure how my kids would feel. But we took it anyway. Our new little family of four.
Eventually, we walked to school with all of the other elementary school families. I kissed Claire and Austin goodbye when we got to school, and when I did, I hugged them close. To both of them I said, “Remember, if you feel worried or sad today, just imagine me wrapping my arms around you. Because that’s what I’m doing – I’m just doing it from home.”
I figured it was a good sign that Claire ran off with her friends. Austin stood silently in his line, and as the class turned to leave, he ran back to give me one more hug.
I picked up Tommy, who still has a few more days to go until he starts school. Then I chatted with other parents, all of whom wanted to see how I was doing. I appreciated the love, and it felt like something approaching normal. But I didn’t put Tommy down. Somehow, he was my protection from the emotions that I had held back all morning. He seemed to understand this, and clung to me furiously. I hugged him back.
I guess that’s what we do now – cling to each other.