The sound of Jillian’s little voice yelling “Mommy!” with unabashed joy from across the grassy lawn of her preschool. The sight of her running as fast as she can, straight toward me. Seeing her friends grab and hug her first, hearing her tell me their names and stories. The wet feeling of tears on my shoulder when my arrival would coincide with a skinned elbow, an unkind word, or a misplaced shoe. Hands full of leaves and sticks that were special and had names and stories and were forgotten in minutes after arriving home. Crouching down to catch her, and the moment I could wrap my arms around her, surrounded by her love as much as she was wrapped in mine. Even the sweaty smell of her hair.
I’m not ready for things to change. I have tried to remember and enjoy each smile and kiss, hold tight to each lovely moment, the feel of her arms around my neck, holding me together, but it’s already blurring, slipping away until I only have these pieces left. I’m not ready, but she is. Something had already started to shift at pickup time in the last few months of preschool. She started running away from me more, playing tag or hiding in a corner. Practicing at being independent, going to get her water bottle without me asking, insisting more and more, “I can do it myself!”
Tomorrow she begins Kindergarten at the same school my older brother and I once attended. It sits tucked under the watchful gaze of Olomana, classrooms connected by open-air hallways lined with concrete floors and corrugated walls on the windward side. At the transition night last week, I discovered that the mural I helped paint in fifth grade is still hanging in the library. We have met the vice-principal twice now, and she is also named Jill. Out on the front lawn rest the same five rocks of 30 years ago, enduring children’s antics with the gruff facade of grandfathers, with an indulgent smile when a small hand presses against warm and cracked faces.
I want to promise myself to remember everything about her first day tomorrow, and yet I can barely remember Jillian’s first day of preschool, despite making the same promises then. I insisted on signing her up for preschool once she dropped her afternoon nap at two and half years old. It made for long days home alone, especially with Foster working late hours. At least, that was what I told most people. The decision was based on was more than that. I had been crumbling since she was born, overwhelmed with anxiety and torn between competing needs: Jillian’s, Foster’s, friends, family, and my business. There wasn’t enough time to pay attention to everything, much less take care of my own needs, even more so without the daily break of an afternoon naptime. So I pulled out a checkbook and signed Jillian over to strangers for four hours a day. Putting her in preschool gave me time to heal, and also gave me joy in watching her grow on her own, especially in the areas where we had struggled with alone: learning to run fast, swing high on the swing, and fearlessly peddle a tricycle around the track. She also learned to love making art, spending her afternoons watching other children as they drew butterflies and castles, then copying their shapes and making them her own.
For the first few months of morning drop-offs, we would sit together on the child-sized bench beside the two-year-old classroom, and watch the other children play. She would sit in my lap, or sit beside me and grip my arm, but she would not get up and join them, not until I left, and even then, often not without a lot of prompting. Some days, after enough sitting and cuddling, I could say goodbye with a few more hugs and kisses, extended declarations of love, and promises that I would be back at noon to pick her up. Other days I would have to hand her off to a teacher when the bell rang for circle time, prying her away like an opihi from the rocks, casting her into this new place of surging emotions and paintbrushes, big girl potties and other children. And I would drive home wondering if I had made the wrong decision, if I was a terrible and selfish mother. I would wonder even as I knew there was no other way to regain my mental health, even as her teacher would reassure me that Jillian was adjusting well, even as everyone reminded me that she was a happy and well-adjusted child.
Jillian eventually grew to enjoy school, began looking forward to it, even more so when she moved up a class and found herself a best friend, or rather, when they found each other. When he left for Kindergarten, she made a new friend, then a few more. Drop-offs became easier and easier, until these past few months they’ve mostly been a quick kiss on the cheek and vague waving motion as she ran off to go play. But on one day in the last week of preschool, she pulled me close to whisper in my ear, “I don’t want you to go.” Her hands gripped tighter around my mine before they released, and then off she went, skipping away, the moment’s hesitation already forgotten.
Her teacher, Ms. Liz, has been strong, shining thread through these past few years. I have often relied on Liz’s calm, measured voice to give me the words I needed to comfort Jillian, or to push her to grow. It has been her at her feet that Jillian has begun to learn a sense of her place in the world, a world separate from mommy and daddy, a world not always fair or kind, but one that can be made better by Jedi warriors and superheroes, princesses and kings, and even young children, by the grace of kindness, by the force of those that would stand up against injustice to make things better for all.
Tomorrow, I will place her in the hands of a new teacher, surrounded by different children. A few will already know how to read and some will come from families who couldn’t afford preschool; there will be military families who have only arrived recently and some families who can trace their roots to this place back many generations. Tomorrow, I will take photos and kiss her goodbye, and then I will come home. And at 2:00 pm tomorrow afternoon, I will return to pick her up from her new school, and I will listen for her voice calling out for me. And then we will walk home together, as she holds my hand and heart in her own.