In August 1999, I put my daughter on a plane for Ecuador and settled down to wait. I had heard all the public relations about study abroad: how my daughter would never be the same after a semester as a foreigner. But I liked her the way she was before she left, I tell my husband, with a sniffle. He takes the exit out of the airport and gives my leg a comforting pat.
Gallivanting all over the world (otherwise known as “broadening”) is almost a requirement in raising a child in today’s global society. Corporate recruiters look for candidates who are sensitive to other cultures and savvy about political issues. Bilingual and multilingual skills translate into bonuses. Recognizing the value of the study abroad experience, however, doesn’t make it go down any easier for those left behind—parents, siblings, grandparents, roommates, lovers, pets.
So What Do We Do as We Wait?
My routine—one followed even on Sundays and holidays—quickly evolved. Each morning I checked the weather page in the newspaper to find out how the weather was in my daughter’s corner of the world. In Quito, Ecuador, situated within kissing distance of the equator, temperatures averaged in the sixties and seventies from August through December—the rainy season. It sounded like paradise with an umbrella, but I wasn’t to be fooled. No matter how perfect the weather where your child resides, you wonder what clothes and accessories he or she has on hand to reply to the elements: rain gear, hat, sun block, mosquito netting.
After the weather check, I turned to the international pages for catastrophic news: floods, blizzards, hurricanes, rebellions, political coups, or tribal uprisings. Of course, something or someone will be on the rampage near your child—you just know it. In my case, it was volcanoes. In Ecuador, a country smaller than Nevada, there are thirty volcanoes in two mountain ranges. The area is affectionately called the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Although most of Ecuador’s volcanoes are extinct, two bad boys flexed their muscles while my daughter was there: Tungurahua, which caused the evacuation of whole villages and the abandonment of businesses and crops, and Guagua Pichincha, which belched plumes of ash into the sky and sent everyone near Quito hunting for protective masks.
After breakfast, and my digestion of the news, I headed downstairs to gather my e-mail. On a good day, a message from Ecuador was waiting. To accomplish this feat, my daughter had ridden on a bus for two hours to a nearby major city, eluded the pickpockets, and found a cybercafe with a working Internet connection. Often the e-mails were short and reassuring: “The Quito airport has been closed for six days due to the volcano. Don’t worry. So far the ash showers are not bothering my asthma. I doubt the volcano will have an impact on my case of food poisoning.”
Occasionally the waiting was interrupted by a letter, written a month ago, perhaps amid a cloud of butterflies in the rain forest or huddled wet to the bone on a dirt floor. These communiqués expressed weeks-old feelings, fears, joys, and frustrations. You don’t know whether to be relieved or to call the American consul. Even better than a letter was a telephone call. At first, you can’t believe that the voice so far away is your baby and you feel like weeping, but at $2 a minute, you contain yourself. These calls are invariably bittersweet; your child is alternately enchanted by new experiences and yearning for familiar ones. Homesickness crackles between the words and the inevitable pauses of international telecommunications. Excitement sings along the wires.
These calls are never long enough and often inadequate—especially when your child opens by announcing that she is calling from the hospital but you’re not to worry.
“The hospital staff thinks the dysentery is under control,” my daughter says, and I imagine my firstborn alone in a strange hospital ward at the mercy of Third World medicine men and women.
“Is the hospital clean?” I ask.
“It looks okay to me,” she says. This from the daughter who hasn’t felt a hot shower in eight weeks.
“Can you understand the doctors and nurses?”
What Took You So Long
We wait for soldiers to return from war and for the butcher to call our number at the meat counter. Teachers wait for understanding to flicker and shine in the eyes of students. Mothers wait for babies to be born. Children wait for St. Nick to squeeze down a chimney and step over the gas logs.
Does anyone become good at waiting? I am told that waiting teaches patience and humility, but then it also inspires road rage.
I’ve come to understand that you endure waiting by simply doing it and not thinking for too long at any one time about that for which you wait—that child who is dodging malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the rain forest or drinking espressos in a Parisienne café or cajoling a camel across the desert. That child, who you remember as being incapable of picking up her own socks, is now doing everything without you, and she is managing quite well, making mistakes and discovering strengths. In fact, she is laundering her Gap shirts by slapping them on a rock—something you can’t imagine doing.
Waiting is about letting go a little bit at a time, e-mail by e-mail, letter by letter. We can go into withdrawal and take to our beds or we can discover some strengths of our own. And when the plane touches down and she walks into your arms, you can’t help but notice that there’s a confidence to her stride, a gutsiness that she wears like an expensive perfume. Suddenly, you are in awe of what she has become—the woman you always wanted her to be.
Thoughts? When have you had to let go? How did you handle it?