The children appeared. Their dad lived just across the street, a situation that was once awkward but now convenient, and they walked over together to say goodbye. We stood awkwardly outside in the sun next to my packed car. I held my breath, bit my lip, and hugged each of them, one by one, making it count.
Eric. Did he even know what was happening? We had talked about it the day before, there on the empty steps of the nearly-empty house, but I never know how much he understands. He smiled and nodded “yes,” and I felt his heart telling me that everything will be fine between us — that he’ll one day learn to talk despite his delays and we’ll have long conversations about everything and nothing — but still I don’t know. I hugged him again. He pulled away, startled by the intensity, and smiled at me. His smile was uncertain at first, and then grew broader at some remembered game between us. He couldn’t have known in his Down syndrome world that my goodbye was going to stretch far into his unknown
Serena. She’s always thinner than I imagine her to be every time we hug. Bird bones, light and thin but oh-so-strong. Eight going on sixteen, always impatient for the next thing and the next. She had plans that day that didn’t include standing in the sun and trying not to imagine what life was going to be like without her mother in it. She too pulled away, possibly hoping that by pushing me away she could push away the realness and the finality of the moment.
Nathaniel. He looked at me with the accusing eyes of a near-teen. They pleaded, “Take me with you! You and I are so alike; how can you leave me here?” Part of me didn’t want to see those eyes. I wanted the fact that he was older than the others to mean that he’d understand better what was happening and why I was going. I knew I was expecting more of him than was fair, but that expectation was all I could cling to. After all, someone had to understand. We hugged, neither of us yet used to the recent change in our height dynamic that caused him to now bend down a little, still unsure whether being taller than me had to mean being wiser as well. Suddenly feeling a new weight of responsibility, he clutched Eric’s hand and looked at me again, at the same time questioning and knowing the answer.
Unspoken words hung in the stillness of the warm summer air, but there was nothing more to say. The children turned to go, the three moving as one. Walking together, they rounded the corner, looking back at me one more time. That’s the image I call up every day: Eric gleeful at the promise of his next moment; Nathaniel holding Eric’s hand, looking at me with pleading eyes; Serena resolute, striding forward. Ironically, wildly, I had the thought that the three of them finally looked like a real family. Always before it was too much to see past the squabbles and their age differences for them to look like anything but individuals. Now they were finally bonded in their shared loss.
I watched them go until they were out of sight, and turned toward the car. I checked the bikes again on the back of the car, got in, and moved down the driveway one last time. My children’s new permanent residence stood before me, windows tightly shut as if no one lived there. Needing to punish myself somehow, I forced a last glance at their house, hoping the image of it would overwrite the one that penetrated my brain from just moments before, the image of my children turning the corner into their new lives, without me.