On the last Tuesday of August, my daughter and I marked another of the many milestones in her life. For the first time, she embarked on a journey that lead her to what people in our area of the South commonly refer to as “big school”.
It was a day I had anticipated with very mixed emotions. The Logical Dad side of me could see the benefits in not having to drive her to daycare any longer, which is halfway across town and took us fifteen minutes on a good day, but added a minimum of half an hour to my total morning commute. But the Emotional Dad side of me stood back and anticipated the rush of tears that, according to my Facebook friends back in the Midwest, where children begin school a bit earlier in the month, was certain to come before, during, and after the big send-off. And the Regular Ol’ Dad side of me wavered back and forth between the two.
When I was in elementary school, my mom always drove us to school on the first day each year. And she always made a big deal out of it. So it seemed logical to me that I would also drive my daughter to school on her first day. This decision was made even easier by the fact that her school is on the way to my school. (No, I did not enroll her where I work as I wanted her to attend school in our home district). And she was all for it.
So that morning we got up and she put on the new pink and white striped dress I had laid out for her, followed by the brown closed-toed sandals we had searched two cities for, as the school dress code prohibits any student from wearing flip-flops, open-toed sandals, or crocs. I pulled her hair back into what has become her signature pony tail and we began the obligatory, but enjoyable, photo session, with my favorites being the ones we took on the front step before we left the house.
As is our unfortunate, but customary pattern, we arrived late, just as the bell was ringing, but this time it was of little fault of our own. They had begun some construction between our house and the school, making our five minute drive last for twelve. However, as it was the first day of school, we were not by any stretch of the imagination the only ones arriving just then.
As some of you may recall from a previous post, I worked at my daughter’s school through the year she was born. So any time we arrive I am greeted with hugs, handshakes, and pleasant conversations with no fewer than three people before we reach our destination. It’s a little bit like coming home after a long vacation.
The first day of kindergarten did not disappoint.
Once we finally arrived at my daughter’s classroom, which we had visited on Orientation Day the Friday before, we had been in the building close to ten minutes. Her teacher and teacher’s assistant were there to greet us with yet more warm smiles (no hugs though, they’re both new since I worked there). The assistant showed my daughter where to put her new Disney Princess backpack, which had been waiting patiently at the top of her closet since she received it from her grandparents last Christmas, and even let her choose which “cubby” she wanted to put it in. Then my daughter got to find her name tag on the table so she would know where to sit when the teacher said it was time. Before I left there were many hugs and kisses exchanged, but overall it was a good way to begin her official academic career. And I managed to make it through the morning without crying.
But in all fairness, I had gotten that out of the way the night before.
The weekend before the Big Day started with kindergarten orientation on Friday. We arrived during the morning session to more of the afore-mentioned hugs and other greetings. Then while I settled in to fill out the voluminous folder of paperwork (I seriously signed fewer documents when we purchased our house), my daughter was taken to another table to work on an “All About Me” collage made from various magazine pictures of her choosing, During the hour we were there, two other students came in with their parents, so she was able to catch a glimpse of what some of her other classmates would be like.
As we left the school, the rain clouds had begun to close in, and I began to wonder if it would somehow rain every day I set foot in the building with her, as the same thing had happened the day of her kindergarten registration. (It was sunny the first day of school, so presumably the curse has been lifted). We had planned to spend the afternoon at the beach, but it was not meant to be.
Or so we thought.
After several short downpours, and more than one children’s program on tv, the rain let up enough that I decided to try it. By this time I had promised my daughter a fast food lunch at the beach, so we stopped and picked up some at one of her favorite “on-the-go” establishments. The sun was shining at the beach, but the clouds surrounding it were much darker than the ones around home, and I was worried that we had wasted the effort in coming.
Five minutes after we set up our chairs, the bottom fell out.
We had just enough warning to make it to the covered building nearby, so our heads stayed mostly dry as we huddled under the awning with the thirty-or-so others who had been crazy enough to brave the elements for a day at the beach. After less than ten minutes of torrential downpour, the sun returned and so did our plans for the day. We spent the next several hours engaging in most of our favorite beach time activities, except for playtime in the ocean as then-Hurricane Bill, though out to sea, was keeping our rip current risk greatly elevated that weekend.
Saturday we went back-to-school shopping, where I had my first experience of having to wait outside of the dressing room while my daughter tried on clothes. (I thought she’d be much older the first time that happened.) We also went to several stores in our town looking for shoes she could wear with her dresses that fit the school’s strict shoe policy. And while we found lots of cute school clothes, we struck out in the school-approved shoe department. So Sunday we went to a larger city about an hour away and searched for several more hours before finally finding her sandals at a store ten minutes prior to closing time. We celebrated with dinner at an Italian restaurant nearby.
Monday was a repeat of Friday, but without the kindergarten orientation and rain. We spent several hours at the beach. And while we sat digging holes in the wet sand, things really began to sink in for me.
This was really the end of summer for us.
But not only was it the end of summer, it was the start of something completely new. So as I dug, I finally allowed the Emotional Dad side to take hold, and I really thought about what all of these changes would mean for us. And I thought about how things might have been if my wife had been here to share in them with us. And the longer I sat there pondering these things, digging holes in the sand, the more I realized that by doing so, I was trying desperately to hold on to the last few moments of my daughter’s childhood as I had known it to that point.
But that was not the moment during which the tears flowed.
We went home and completed our normal nightly routine, with the new addition of packing the backpack and setting it by the front door, and my daughter went to sleep easily, despite her anticipation of what tomorrow might bring.
When the house was quiet and she was tucked in for the night, I hopped in the shower to rid myself of the salt and sand that remained. And I listened to two songs on a particular cd, one of which I will likely share in a future post, and this one. And in that moment, the water from my eyes joined that which was already flowing overhead, and I allowed myself the luxury of a good, long cry.
It was the kind of cry I thought I would have when my daughter graduated from preschool a few months ago. I guess I had reasoned that her preschool graduation marked the end of an era and was therefore sad, while starting kindergarten represented the beginning of an era and should be primarily joyous. Not that I was naïve enough to think I might not cry, I just didn’t expect the emotion to hit me with that kind of momentum.
That weekend my daughter had also begun a cycle of grief that was much more intense than some in the past, and I think I had pushed my own grieving back in order to help her feel and understand hers. Though it would be several more days before she made the connection as to why she was grieving so hard during this particular time, she was able to communicate her feelings in a way that was different than she has in the past.
All in all, it was a beautiful weekend with some emotionally tumultuous spots, but we made it through together. This is just part of how life is for us now. Even the most exciting moments will always be marked with some level of grief and sadness.
And that is how we will continue to make it through. Together.
Due to a staggered enrollment process and a planned absence, which I will write about in a future post, my daughter only attended school on Tuesday that week. But when Monday rolled around she was ready to go back to school and try this kindergarten thing some more. But as is the case with us, Monday came with yet another first. About a year ago, my daughter decided that she wanted to ride the bus when she started “big school”, and true to her own desires, she readily climbed the steps when it pulled up in front of our house. Another day, another change.
I stood there briefly as the bus began to pull away, but there were no tears this time.
Only a big smile from my Proud Papa side.
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