Nearly every day for nine years, I have walked a child – or two – to school.
We have walked kicking the leaves in the fall, trudging through snow and sliding over thick alley ice in winter, and stopping over and over to notice the bulbs pressing claws through the surface of the dirt in spring. We have befriended the dogs of elderly neighbors, watched the baby siblings of friends grow into shy kindergarteners, and bowed our heads in respect for the trees ravaged by ash-borers and marked for removal.
Mostly, though, I see now, we grew up and we shrank down.
At first, the path we took was circular, stopping at little sister’s preschool and then at big sister’s side of the elementary school. We were three-and-a-bit-more, with me pushing a behemoth of a stroller and holding a small hand under mine as we crossed the one busy street in our path. Those were awkward, lunky walks; when winter came and the stroller no longer rolled over the sidewalks, I put little sister on my back in a carrier or, sometimes, pulled her behind me in a big plastic saucer-sled. We were slow, but the two schools offered a blissful several minutes every day alone with each child: the walk to elementary school with big sister after dropping off little sister, and the walk to elementary school with little sister before we picked up big sister.
“We’re working on this great game at recess,” big sister told me gleefully as we skipped together up the hill to kindergarten. “Me and my friend Allie are in the circus and we have to stay on the climby thing the whole recess or we get fired!”
She chattered along each morning, ready to go, ready to be there, ready in every way. I held her hand, soft and thick, so big in mine suddenly, and relished the lack of preschooler interruption. We said goodbye when her teacher took his class up the brick staircase, and as the door closed behind them, my world was adult again.
I stood in my house each morning during those years and relished the silence.
In just a few years, the circle’s main arc disappeared; little sister was ready for her turn at kindergarten. A wide row of three, my hands literally full on both sides, we marched utterly abreast each day. One child went to each side of the large school, and with only one of me, I felt a piece of my heart flutter off to follow one daughter per day, leaving me forever with something missing.
Still, the walk – the walk! – was a joy of prattle and song, a storybook beginning before I made a daily choice of which daughter needed me near her class line. Big sister warbled through the tunes she learned in the chorus, and little sister practiced her Spanish alphabet. I smiled at the mothers and fathers streaming toward the school from every direction, and we nodded and admired and grabbed at the stragglers as we crossed the road, all together.
“Meet me on the kindergarten side,” I told big sister, “right after school. Ok?”
And she would agree and promptly forget, but in that moment, the beginnings of synergy were clanking together in the air. I knew they would catch. I could start to see the way we would work as a unit; we three would be a team, any day now.
I breathed deeply and walked home quickly just for the joy of moving unencumbered by dragging feet and curious stopping.
Shortly, but also years later, our walking group shrank. Big sister went to middle school, half-an-hour earlier and all on her own. Not true, actually; all on her own with her friends, who she met at the park so they could walk together. For the first two weeks, I watched through the kitchen window as she made her way up our alley, her walk bouncing and her face lifted to the sky. The proverbial apron strings stretched, frayed, held.
Now it was just little sister and me, and I realized the first week that we had never walked to school together, just the two of us. Without big sister’s bravado and know-how, little sister found the space to tell me new things. In the quiet of the morning walk, we often simply held hands and smelled the wet leaves or the cold wind or the lilacs. She revealed to me, in those walks alone, her poet’s soul.
“It was so nice this morning,” she said one day, “to wake up and lie in bed and hear everyone awake downstairs. My whole family. All there.”
“Last night after bed,” she admitted another day, “I didn’t see the cat in the parking lot next door. I watched for a long time. She didn’t come.”
Oh my, I thought. Look who has been here, all along.
I came home from those walks and sometimes went up to their bedrooms for laundry or library books or, I realized, for nothing really.
Next year, our day will begin in my kitchen as always: a flurry of lunch-making and cereal and papers to sign and cheeks to kiss, and then it will be different. Big sister will go to high school – by city bus or by bike – and little sister will go to middle school, on foot with her friends.
I won’t go to school at all next year. I’ll have no one to walk.
The reality of that thought grabs me now, as I walk little sister through her last months of elementary school and find myself holding her hand tighter, kissing her hair at the stoplights, musing aloud that we are almost done walking together. She is sympathetic but ready to walk alone, and I know I ought to stop making her worry, but I can’t help it: I will miss this. I will miss this walk as though it is a street that will be bulldozed after the school year is over.
The shape of next year’s morning has not yet revealed itself to me, but I can picture the shadows of it, reaching forward: one child leaves, then the next, and I stay.
Guest post written by Debi Lewis. Debi is the mother of two daughters and blogs regularly at Swallow, My Sunshine. You can find her essays at Kveller; Brain, Child Magazine; RoleReboot; Mamalode; The Mighty; and on ChicagoNow. She is currently at work on a memoir about her younger daughter's journey through medical mystery. Follow her on Twitter at @growthesunshine.