I have this dog, an Australian shepherd, a herder by nature. He becomes distraught when a family member leaves the room. He leaps up to follow the flock-busting defector, then looks back at the rest of us, unsure of where he’s needed. He winds up spinning in circles, looking profoundly confused, and existentially frustrated.
We laugh at him because it’s sort of pathetic. But he can’t help it; he’s hardwired that way. And for the first time in my life, I understand it.
My 12-year-old left last week on a class trip to Europe. Parents are not invited, phone calls not permitted; it makes the students homesick to hear mom’s voice. Instead, we get daily Twitter posts with photos of the kids in front of French, Italian, and Spanish monuments.
For a year before the trip, friends told me, “You’re brave. I could never let my child do that.” I truly didn’t understand the sentiment. I mean, it’s not like they went to Libya. Frankly, I looked forward to having one less lunch to pack, and to bringing home Thai food for dinner without anyone complaining.
He was gone just one day when friends began calling: “How are you holding up?” Really? The kid isn’t touring the Daiichi nuke plant, I explained; he’s slurping gelato in Florence. How bad could it be?
Turns out, though, they knew something I didn’t. Because today is Day Eight, and I’m shocked to discover that I am not, for want of a better term, “holding up.” I’m a wreck. A clichéd bundle of nerves.
I keep Twitter open on my computer screen and hit “refresh” every two minutes in case there are new pictures posted. No? How about now? Still nothing, huh? When there’s a new one, I scan it for clues to his well-being: He looks tired, doesn’t he? Is that a new sweatshirt he’s wearing? I didn’t pack that. He’s spending his souvenir money on “I Heart Roma” hoodies? This does not bode well for my Fendi handbag!
I actually—how embarrassing is this?—sent a Facebook friend request to his chaperone/teacher, hoping for access to any status updates she might post from abroad, like, “Today while soaking up Parisian culture, the children smoked Gauloises cigarettes and took in a burlesque show.” (She hasn’t responded to my request, which is weird because who wouldn’t want to be friends with a helicopter-mom/cyber-stalker?)
I’m terribly disappointed. I thought I was a different sort of mom. The non-clingy kind. The un-paranoid kind.
But there’s something subrational going on here. Something biological. His absence just makes me … anxious. It’s that nerve-jangling feeling you get when your kid ducks under an ocean wave. You know his head will poke back up again. Of course it will. But there’s a ghastly where-is-he moment when you feel perilously, unnaturally untethered to your child. Let’s just say it: your baby.
I feel it now when I climb into bed at night. I hadn’t realized what a deep, day-ending, sleep-provoking comfort it is to have my kids tucked safely under their blankets nearby. With the time difference, I lay my head on a pillow just as he lifts his off one, waking up for another day of laughs I can’t hear and discoveries I can’t witness.
And do you want to know the worst part? I can no longer laugh at my neurotic dog; I now know how it feels to be one sheep short of a flock. Which is all the more reason that when my son returns—to find me and the dog spinning in circles, unsure of where we’re needed—he’d really better have that handbag.