Today I dropped off my 18-year-old daughter Sofia and three friends at a cabin in the woods. They had been planning this trip for months. Which way to divide up the cooking and buy the groceries, how they would get tested twice and quarantine for two weeks before (and some for two weeks after), who could drive and who had a car or a brother with a license, if they would bring bikes or charcoal, jugs of water or a filter, and who would bring the sunscreen, the bug spray, and the fire starter.
They played oldies from 2015 during the drive into the Shenandoah mountains, and bounced in their seats and laughed, the conversation always tripping along with the energy of an adventure beginning.
“I’ve been doing hella driving since I got my learner’s.”
“I had to do a U-turn in front of a sno-cone truck!”
“28 out of 30. I got the one wrong about how to pass a streetcar.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a streetcar.”
When we exited onto a two-lane ribbony country road, it started raining and they checked the weather on their phones, and it came down so hard all the colors washed into white, and we drove through farms clinging to the slopes and under a freight train standing still on a ridge above us, and then we turned onto a one-lane gravel road, then a muddy drive, and when we got to the steepest part, we thought the car wouldn’t make it.
“Dada sad, but a little glad,” my husband had said when he hugged Sofia goodbye before she left the house, and as we backed out, he stood in the street to make sure no one was coming. I had ordered groceries that morning, but when I deleted the frozen fruit Sofia wouldn’t be needing for her morning smoothies, I felt like I was deleting her from my life.
She wouldn’t be coming down in her yoga clothes every morning, hair braided down the back. She wouldn’t be making her weekly dinners with yogurt dill sauces or her roasted summer vegetables. We wouldn’t do driving practice on Tuesday afternoon, and she wouldn’t be there to remind Luke to put his napkin on his lap, or help Mark with his summer math homework, or ask the kids so I don’t have to, “Why aren’t you in quiet time?”
“Is that everything?” I call back to the girls who are now checking out the cabin bedrooms and the valley view from the hot tub deck, as I look into the empty car, and then I remember the firewood in the secret trunk compartment. I set the wood down next to the little wood stove and start trying to figure out how it works, and I realize I have already done too much.
Sofia gives me a big hug, and she is happier than she has been in a long time, and I walk through the fiberglass door with the beveled glass window and close it, leaving me on the other side, and I get into the car and tell Google Maps to take me home.
She will not be home for dinner tonight, but she will also not be on that living room couch watching YouTube videos — she will be so far from her family that she will feel herself expanding, she will fill a space open and free, not criss-crossed by expectations and demands, underground hopes and invisible canopies. She will feel the chemistry of friendships alchemizing, conversations that go on for 48 hours, figuring out how she likes to do things, how she likes to run a house, set a table, organize her day, follow her heart.
As I wind down the mountain, the sun is coming back out and steam rises off the pavement. I drive past poultry farms and grazing cows and junk yards with piles of tires in front, and the road curves in and up, down and around, like a hammock swinging.
And then through a break in the trees, I see that freight train moving across a high trestle between two peaks, and I start humming that country gospel song I don’t know why I love, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” The train must have stopped in the downpour, but it’s moving now. Black tank cars, yellow boxcars, well cars stacked with shipping containers, graffiti decorating each one, including the word “HOME” spray painted in all caps.
The road winds around gasps of mist hanging beside the mountains, past the Skyline Caverns with its rainbow waterfall and enchanted dragon, and then there it is again churning along the tracks on a ridge, and I want to stay there and hear the steel rolling over steel, watch the cars clicking by one by one over the rails, being pulled along, simply holding what they were given, because somewhere ahead an engineer has his hand on the throttle, watching the curves, the fills, and tunnels.
When I get home, I send pictures of the girls and the cabin to the other moms and I think that I might not hear from my daughter for five days. And this is practice for a real leaving. A leaving she has been preparing for her whole life. An uncoupling. And I will feel the sudden loss of the weight behind me, like a railcar being unhitched from another after a long journey, and not being able to look back to see where the other is headed.