‘Never mine to keep’

‘Never mine to keep’

Thoughts on my daughter’s departure for college

Alika Lazarus Saxena kisses her big sister, Kiara.
Alika Lazarus Saxena kisses her big sister, Kiara.

When my daughter Kiara was accepted, by early decision, into the Lee Strasberg acting program at Tisch NYU, I was profoundly overjoyed. (The Tisch School of the Arts is NYU’s hard-to-get-into “training ground for artists, scholars of the arts, and filmmakers,” as its website puts it.)

It was the apex of Kiara’s college dreams and we danced around her bedroom like two giggling girls, celebrating her abundant good fortune. But as the countdown to her impending departure began, my joy was quickly tempered by a growing sense of dread. I gave birth to her late in life; she had made me a mother; and the thought of her imminent absence was a loss too large to fathom. Our house would just never feel like home again without her light and laughter.

I kept my sadness to myself, but I began to lament our days as a series of lasts. At night, when I’d hear her playing her flute in her room, I’d pause outside her door, already mourning the silence that would soon fill its place. When I drove her to her weekly voice lessons, I’d weep in the waiting room as she sang Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sondheim songs in her rich soprano, knowing my delight in this eight-year ritual was coming to an end. When she starred in her last high school play, I felt myself physically crack with grief. I knew a door was closing that would never open in quite the same way again. It was enough to break my heart.

But on the day of the move, I kept a brave front. We packed up the car with all her clothes and bedding and a bunch of framed prints to decorate her dorm room. Then we headed out as a family over the George Washington Bridge, my husband and me up front, Kiara and her adoring sister, Alika, nestled in back, listening to music on their phones and chatting away in the easy language that they shared.

It was a mere 18-mile drive from Tenafly, but for me then it went to the other end of the earth.

When we arrived, we saw that her room was small, but the summer light poured in through a tall bank of windows that overlooked the bustling city below. It was cheerful and bright, and once we hung her pictures and settled her in, we took a walk around Union Square, which was now her new backyard. I bought her a bouquet of peonies at one of the stalls, and after grabbing a quick bite at a local Panera, we circled back to her building. When we reached her front stoop, we hugged, and in an effort to appear calm, I snapped a few photos as Alika tenderly kissed her sister on the cheek. Then we said our goodbyes.

I was shredding inside, yet in deference to my daughter’s hallmark day, I managed our parting without shedding a tear. But the floodgates unleashed before I ever made it back to our car. I began sobbing like a child in the street and wept inconsolably all the way home, utterly unable to speak.

The adjustment proved as painful as we all imagined, each of us calibrating her departure, as a daughter and sister, in our own separate ways.

But now, eight years out, I’ve remained as close to Kiara as a mother could ever hope to be. She’s built a life for herself in the city, earned her master’s in creative writing at NYU, and lives in a lovely studio on the Upper East Side, working on a novel.

New York no longer feels like the other end of the earth. I see her all the time. When she comes home for visits, we drink wine in the kitchen, cooking and laughing, always eager to share the contents of our hearts. And when I visit her in the city, I often sleep over, where we share her queen-sized bed like two teens at a slumber party. We text each other prized passages from books we read, and she recently put her whole life on hold to take care of me after a surgery.

We‘re now adult best friends. She is no longer just mine, as she was as a child, but I’ve come to terms with this as she was never mine to keep.

Rochelle Lazarus of Tenafly is a freelance writer.

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