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Photo Finish

There’s a picture on my kitchen bulletin board—half hidden by silly greeting cards and bumper stickers—that has become my family’s iconic back-to-school photo. My two oldest kids are front and center, standing on the steps of our old house. A basket of late-summer impatiens droops behind them. It’s my eldest’s first day of preschool.

Both are sporting construction paper name tags pinned to their shirts, sent by the teacher to wear on the first day. My son’s has his name. My daughter’s has my name. She’s only 17 months younger, and somehow she assumed the second tag was for her. I was not about to burst her bubble. Given the way she puffed out her chest for the photo, you would have thought that it was her first day of school—if you didn’t know better. Her big brother, standing beside her, smiles as if to say, “Can you believe this?”

We’ve continued that first-day photo op ever since, even as we had two more children and the kids’ dad moved out a decade later. Over the years, there’s been griping about what my offspring refer to as my “obsession” with that first-day-of-school photo. The morning my son started his senior year of high school, after I finally succeeded at wrestling him into the viewfinder, he flipped my camera the bird. I kid you not.

When he was getting ready to leave for college, I decided to copy that first-day-of-preschool photo and make it into a card for him, figuring I’d tuck it into a bundle of framed family photos his sisters and I were planning to leave on the desk in his dorm. Inside, I wrote about how proud I was of the person he had become.

Ultimately, all of us drove the eight hours south to get him settled. We helped hang posters and make up his bed, and piled back in the car to hit Walmart for extension cords and lightbulbs. We walked all over the sprawling campus and bought about a million dollars’ worth of textbooks at the bookstore. When there was nothing left to do, I laid the bundle of framed photos on his desk and had him walk his sisters and me out to the car.

For a mom, it’s that moment you’ve kind of been dreading for the past however many years: time to push your little bird out of the proverbial nest. It’s scary to imagine how hard he’d need to flap his wings to stay aloft. Or how empty our surroundings would seem without him.

My oldest daughter, who had so proudly stood next to her brother all those years before, turned and wrapped her arms around him to say goodbye.

Then my son stepped in front of me, and I felt as though I should remind him to say no to drugs, study hard and floss daily. Yet all I could do was throw my arms around his neck and cry. Then I felt his back twitching as he sobbed. I was grateful that he, too, felt sad. Right then, my younger daughter snapped our picture.

We pulled apart, wiped our eyes and said so long. Somehow, I navigated the traffic-clogged roads around the dorms and got us back on the highway. The girls and I sniffled a little more, then settled in for the long drive home.

The next day I sent him a text to see how he made out his first night in the dorm and asked if he had found the pictures and card on his desk.

“Yeah I got them thank you,” he messaged back. “Sad card.” I knew exactly what he meant—that picture was a reminder of the good old days, of construction paper name tags and crustless sandwiches. A time that had come to an end.

Then a second text popped up on my phone. “Can you send the basketball I left in the garage when you get a sec?” Sure.

Meanwhile, the picture my daughter took became the newest addition to our first-day-of-school photo gallery. For me, it perfectly captures the feeling of a child leaving the nest. My son’s back is to the camera and his head is leaning toward me as we embrace. My face is contorted in what can only be called an ugly cry, and my arms hug him tight while my hand cups the back of his neck, holding it like I did when he was an infant. But in my heart I know his wings work just fine. 

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