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Caitlin Harley.
Caitlin Harley.
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The heart-wrench of her leaving us

AND so it has come to be that 18 years have gone by. Eighteen years! I try to pinpoint her at age 10, 14, 6?

Nothing specific comes to mind except the sweet essence of her. Her brown hair flying out behind her as she swings higher and higher on a playground swing; her bare feet in the cool water at the edge of the ocean; her face, expectant, looking out the window to watch for the first of her 10th birthday party guests to arrive; her teenage headphones and moody fringe; her developing womanhood.

And I suddenly feel that 18 years can be condensed into a heartbeat so large that the throb of it threatens to burst my ribcage open. A childhood spent, a girl is grown.

Somewhere in all that time were nappies, sleepless nights, Calpol, Christmas plays and report cards. There were sleepovers and breakups, paper cuts and sports awards.

There was laughter, crying, celebrations and disappointments, but none of them seem relevant now as I see her with her bags packed and ready to leave for college in Cork.

When you’re expecting your first child, there are no amount of parenting books or advice that can prepare you for the actuality of the experience. The same applies when they set off for college. Friends who have gone through the procedure warned everything is a challenge from finding accommodation (and financing it) through to the goodbyes and letting go.

I assumed that when my time came, it would be different. We would sail through the whole business of it. I believed that those who found the parting sad, or were apprehensive about it, were simply not looking at things positively enough. But I was wrong. Parting is hard and social media is not the same when children are miles away.

Also true is that the scuffle to find accommodation in the city is real. We travelled up on the day of the CAO announcements to grasp the proverbial nettle. We eventually found an organisation that had had a cancellation that morning and scheduled a viewing. We punched in the address to Google maps and started walking.

As we approached the location, my daughter was assessing the location to its proximity to the city centre, the cinema, and was sold at the sight of a pizza delivery guy on a bicycle with the logo deliveroo. I was looking at a tattooed man walking a stocky dog, the pawn shops, and the proximity of a pub to the security gates which lead to the block of student flats.

The accommodation ticked all the boxes; four rooms in a flat (a student in each — hopefully), two bathrooms, a kitchen and lounge. We filled in the student questionnaire and paid our €200 deposit.

Caitlin Harley.
Caitlin Harley.

When the confirmation email came though that we had the flat, and that a utility deposit of €500 followed by the first €2,500 half of rent on September 1 was due, the euphoria dulled a bit. Who pays rent like that, I declared in sarcasm and protest. Apparently, all students do.

The second instalment of €2,500 would be due on December 1. She had qualified for a maintenance grant from SUSI, which is to be paid in monthly instalments and armed with that knowledge, we had to head home and try and cobble the cash together.

The bank was very accommodating in granting her a student loan and, watching her sign with a flourish, I had such mixed feelings — relieved as I am that she could get a loan, I felt anguish that I had failed somehow as a parent for not having the provisions in place to have paid for her accommodation outright.

What have I done with all my money these past 18 years? For every nappy I bought, I should have put a euro aside. And this is just the start. The course fee and living expenses have to be accounted for as well. But I remind myself that is all just money. And money is nothing compared to the emotional cost of the realisation that her childhood is spent, that it couldn’t be saved at any price.

She is all confidence doing all this adult-ing and shows no hesitancy, no fear, leaning in, signing the paperwork. I am her guarantor. She does not even know the meaning of the word. Not in its true sense. She gives the banker a dazzlingly shy smile and we walk out into the day, both of us subtly different to when we came in. She now carries a loaded student card and fresh responsibility, I carry loaded feelings questioning my responsibility.

On the day I drop her up to Cork, to her flat, I find I am assessing the city anew; squinting down alleyways with narrowed Clint Eastwood-style eyes looking for lurking dangers, assessing the loiterers, scanning the neighbourhood, the sleeping bag on the pavement with a human in it, the shop fronts, striding pedestrians, the last of the summer tourists, and I silently beseech the city to be kind to her.

To be kind to all the students for they are all a new crop of fledgelings freshly flown; all handing out their CVs, braving fresher’s week, negotiating timetables, feeding themselves, grooming themselves, becoming themselves. They are all babies whose childhoods have passed too quickly...

And so, as time does what it does, it’s already been a week since I left her in Cork. During the week, I have been acutely aware that she is not here, she is ‘there’. We have been in touch on Facebook and Snapchat. Her flatmates are lovely and she is learning her way around the city by walking a different route each day to her college to see which she prefers. She has found a lovely café and met some great people.

I know all these things and yet. And yet. Some evenings when I am on automation, chopping carrots and overseeing homework, I have to stop myself from calling her down from her room. “Come spend some time with us.” And then I remember. And it’s not with sadness that the memory comes, nor is it with elation that she has managed to spread her wings and move onwards. It is more like a numbness in one way and a heart-wrench in another.

But tonight, when I was tucking her siblings into their beds, I stopped beside her closed bedroom door, and opened it — just to make sure everything was alright in there, no windows left open, no trapped birds. The door swung open and I stood at the threshold, feeling like an intruder on its emptiness. Its neatness was the first reminder of a girl who liked things nice and orderly. Bed made, childhood teddy in the corner. Her room now contains the possessions that did not define her enough in her new adult role to be taken with her.

Now this space is a shell of what once was her. Like a chrysalis that has been split and left behind. 18 years growing to say goodbye. I feel myself sag and wish I could just slide down the wall, sink to my haunches and wail.

In my mind’s eye, I picture myself, dramatic with grief, my mouth a rictus of emotion, but I just stand there. I stand because in the other rooms, babies are growing who will one day leave home too, as they should, and I don’t want to alarm them. I stand because I have learned that life is to be lived and, as one’s young stretches their wings to fly the nest, you can only fold your wings across your heart and hold them there forever in love.