On separation, running, and the college drop-off

By Dina Elenbogen

We didn’t expect to see her again—so soon. We had said our goodbyes in her new dorm room, less than an hour before we saw her figure in the distance. After a tearless farewell with my daughter, I had headed straight for the local bookshop, as if it were just another summer day. My husband and son went looking for a used bike for her to use around the gothic, limestone Indiana University campus.

In the car, on the way out of town, I was wondering why the tears hadn’t come yet, why my entire body felt numb with disbelief when we parted. From afar, she looked like any other college student, jogging against the August heat. It wasn’t until she approached us, halted at a stop sign, that I realized the runner I had been watching was my daughter. She was wearing her light blue running shorts and her navy and orange Evanston High School t-shirt. Her blondish brown curls were wrapped in a band on her head. I quickly rolled down the car window and yelled “Go Sarina!”— a chant perfected on the sidelines of so many high school cross-country meets. She didn’t miss a step as she turned towards the sound of her name, and nodded at us with half eye-roll, half smile.

She was always running. It had taken her a long time to get her sea-legs. Her crawl was more like a fish swimming in imaginary waters. She got from one place to another so quickly, she was in no hurry to walk. At fifteen months, when she finally moved on to two legs, it wasn’t exactly a stroll she had mastered, but a dash, across parks, chasing after cats or friends, playing hide and seek. She ran from street to neighborhood, from toddlerhood to womanhood, in a flash.

When she was a baby and I had to leave her for a moment to answer the phone or to check whatever was boiling on the stove, I’d say, “be right back.” Her first phrase, when she wanted to be alone with someone else, was, “I want Mommy to be right back.” She didn’t understand that the possibility of someone going away and not being right back even existed.

Our first separation, the day she left my body, was excruciating. Although she was three weeks early, when it was time to push, she turned her head to the right, making her departure from me impossible. The doctor had to turn her head back, with forceps, until she was finally pulled out. Our togetherness in the days and weeks that followed was pure fulfillment. I didn’t need anything else but her small body that still seemed to be attached to mine.

The first separation that she initiated was with her almost two-year-old legs. On her first visit to New York City from our home outside Chicago, she was enamored of the expanse of Central Park, the clock tower with animal arms. In this new city without known boundaries, she ran into the crowd with her purple elephant boots, blond pig tails, not looking back. She didn’t seem to care if her father and I were following her or not. She ran into the distance and I felt she needed me a fraction less than she had before we boarded the plane. She needed me an imperceptible amount less, but I felt it in every bone of my body.

In the years to come the sound of her feet running across the wooden floors of our hundred-year-old house was often in the background. Even when those steps woke us up or caused me to lose a train of thought, I cherished the gentle pounding. It reminded me that she was here, and our home was full of life and movement. That wonderful exuberant energy would lead her down paths I couldn’t follow, to the world of music, stages and bimahs where she’d sing her heart out, to beet fields in Israel, volcanoes in Iceland, social activism, rough terrain where as captain, she’d lead her cross country team through fields and over creeks. She went to places where she wanted Mommy to be back, but not right back.

When Sarina was a baby, maybe her first day home from the hospital, my sister, Beryl, told her this truth: If you ever want to upset your mother, tell her that something is going to change and never be the same again. My older sister knew me as the child who slept surrounded by every stuffed animal I owned, so none would feel left out; the one who saved gum wrappers because she thought everything had a soul. Beryl shared this truth with Sarina from the beginning, because she knew that I would be the mother who held on to every stage of my daughter’s being—how when she turned three months old, I would miss the musical cry of the two-month old infant.

That creeping knowledge of change, was the pain I would not yet let myself feel, the day we dropped her off in Bloomington.

The summer before, on our cross-country road trip to visit schools, we’d been inseparable again. As we covered miles of Illinois, Ohio, and New England roads, we sang duets of Dylan’s “Oh Sister,” our voices rising in unison.

In the middle of our trip that summer, we spent a week apart while she studied in Amherst and I wrote in Northampton. I’d grown so accustomed to being together all of the time on the road, a rarity now that she was a teenager, that I profoundly felt her absence. I tried to imagine what separation would be like for more than this designated week, and I couldn’t.

When we reunited our talk was deepened by the new worlds and landscapes she discovered and from the rich solitude we’d each emerged from, fortified by the knowledge that it was short term. With new stories and old songs, we hit the road for the stony shores of Maine. Our curls fell down our backs, golden from both the same and different suns.

When we reached the small liberal arts college that Sarina had thought might be the perfect place for her, she was soon disillusioned by the elitist attitude and former mill town atmosphere. And although she wouldn’t have said so at the time, she understood that it was a long plane ride away from the midwest, from home. We were slowly coming to imagine what that might mean.

Separation, although on the horizon, had felt distant. Like the New England rain that covered our windshield at times, I could wipe it away. We were lost instead in the discoveries of two women together, on newly traveled roads.

That’s why it wasn’t until the morning after, when I awoke in a house absent of her footsteps, that the tears finally came—and wouldn’t stop. I understood in the core my body, that she had left the house and would not be right back. It was my body that understood that nothing would be exactly the same again. I was inconsolable, even when my husband and younger son tried to assure me that the university’s family day was only a month away.

When the tears ceased, I held onto the memory of her running. I was relieved that her body knew what it needed on separation day, that she had the strength to run into an unfamiliar distance, to glance back, yet to keep moving forward.

Dina Elenbogen is the author of the  book-length memoir, Drawn from Water, the poetry collection Apples of the Earth, and a collaboration with her husband on a daughter Sarina and a son, Ilan. They live and run in Evanston, Illinois and where they celebrate togetherness and learn how to cope with separation.

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