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  • Fly Away Home

    I stood in the middle of the apartment kitchen and hugged my oldest daughter, consciously choosing not — for once — to say anything. Jill stood by the front door, exhausted after several mostly sleepless nights, holding back tears.

    Finally, after a couple of minutes, Kate and I separated with a series of mutual “I love yous.” And then Jill and I left her behind, climbing into the rental car for the 900-mile drive back to Virginia.

    Our 18-year-old daughter is out on her own, living in Florida and looking for a job.

    And we are waiting to exhale.

    Feeling emotionally bulletproof? Become a parent. That's when a speck of gunpowder suddenly takes on the size and scope of an atomic bomb.

    — From a Facebook post on August 30

    We’ve known this transition was coming for some time. It’s something we started planning for when Kate was 5 years old and entering kindergarten, although reality did not set in until a few short months ago. Kate struggled mightily during her manic teenage bipolar years and there were times we worried whether she would finish high school.

    She did this past June, completing her senior year with the best grades she’s had since elementary school. That was thanks in part to a year-long family treatment program and her acceptance that getting out of school was her only way to get out of Virginia. She also received high marks from her after-school employer and the people she worked with as a nanny during the summer.

    For the past several years, Kate has talked about heading south to get away from the four seasons that I craved while growing up in Texas. Late fall and winter, when the temperature drops and the days get shorter, has always been an unsettled time.

    During her senior year, Kate’s plans shifted as often as the colors of her hair, with plans to move to Florida, to California, to Texas, or even as far away as St. Thomas. She became so focused on getting out and getting away that things at home were unsettled at best, fractious and unstable at worst.

    Finally, a few weeks ago, she circled back to her first choice and zeroed in on the Tampa Bay area.

    Jill and I are the children of educators. We have worked in and around schools for most of our professional lives. So it feels somewhat strange that at least two of our four kids — Kate and Ben — are taking very non-traditional paths into adulthood, paths that likely won’t involve four-year universities, at least in the near term.

    Given their very different life circumstances and interests, it makes sense. But, as any parent learns during this process, making sense of something doesn’t make it easy to accept.

    Over the past several years, I’ve written about our challenges in parenting a child with a mental illness and how each transition had more than its share of bumps. Jill and I are quick to speak out about the need for awareness and better mental health care in this country, and we cringe every time we see yet another tragedy tied to someone with mental health issues in the headlines.

    We are fortunate that, when things are stable, Kate is a kind, gentle spirit with a sweet soul. We also know that the mental health aspect of bipolar disorder, especially the depressive part, has a narcissistic, ugly and vindictive side. Treatment, when available, can prove helpful, but it has to be consistent and persistent.

    Consistent and persistent are not words you typically use with teenagers, except when they want something. And Kate wanted this so badly that we had to let her go.

    Off to parts unknown. Off to college. Leaving the nests. Getting jobs. Watching them move on. Common threads many of my friends and cohorts are going through now. To sum up in a word: Sigh...

    — From a Facebook post on August 22.

    As moving day approached, Jill and I were alternately terrified and thrilled that Kate was leaving. I realize that’s a “normal” parenting reaction, although things are amplified when the spectre of bipolar lingers just below the surface.

    Jill and Kate took off for Tampa last week, then I followed with her car on the auto train. They spent 48 hours together, working on the small apartment Kate has. It was the longest period they have spent together, just the two of them, in several years.

    I arrived with frayed nerves. The last week had been an exhausting challenge, both from a work standpoint and from a familial one. My camera equipment was stolen from our car two days before Jill and Kate left, taking with it a significant portion of my livelihood and — just as important — a chunk of my soul. Jill agreed that I could replace the equipment even before we knew what the insurance settlement would be, but I still lost two full days of work and even more sleep.

    The three of us worked together, assembling furniture and shopping to get Kate set up. Like many parents whose children are leaving the nests, we spent more than we originally budgeted, but we didn’t care.

    And then we had to leave our daughter behind.

    Yesterday, after the 900-mile drive home, I saw an interview on the Today Show with author Brene Brown, a researcher from the University of Houston (ironically my alma mater) who has written a series of books on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Her newest book, Rising Strong, was published last week.

    In the interview, Brown described worthiness as the belief that “I am enough. It’s something that takes practice. It’s not an attitude, not a onetime thing. It’s a street fight every day.” She said shame can’t survive if you “douse it with a little empathy.”

    I found myself drawn to what she had to say about vulnerability, because I think in many ways it captures Kate and many of the teens who are making similar transitions now.

    “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Most of us were raised to mitigate risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is weakness. You wake up in the morning, armor up. You get tough. You suck it up. You push through, soldier on.

    “But that armor is really heavy, and it prevents people from knowing us and seeing us, which is our deepest human yearning, to be known and to be seen and to know love and belonging. So I think we’re afraid of it because it means risk and being hurt.”

    Her description of courage also rang true: “Your will to show up and try and let people know that you care about something when you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. That’s courage.”

    Kate is courageous. I have to give her that. She also is brave, smart, and vulnerable. I hope and pray that she is able to pick herself up when she falls into life’s potholes. I hope and pray she remains brave enough to keep trying.

    That feeling for a parent, any parent, is universal. I just hope and pray we can exhale soon.