Guest Post By Gail Doktor
There are two ways to say good-bye: Forever, or see you again soon.
In Italian “addio” means “to God” and is a permanent good-bye. You’d say it to someone who won’t be returning. Or someone who is dying.
By contrast, “ciao” or “arrivaderci” means something like “until the next time I see you.” Both are used daily. Each offers the promise of reunion at a later date.
When I was seeing off my 17-year-old daughter at the airport for a short term exchange program in Italy, it should have been a “ciao” moment. But it didn’t feel like one.
You see, a few years ago, our younger child died during an emergency procedure. She had lived with leukemia for six years, so you might think I was prepared to say good-bye at any moment. When a lung biopsy turned into life-and-death surgery, I wasn’t allowed in the room. She passed away while surrounded by 50 white-coated strangers. I didn’t have a chance to say “addio.”
Given that background, you might understand that partings can be hard for our family. You might even predict that I’m a control freak about my surviving 17-year-old daughter’s wellbeing. Over-protective? Hyper-vigilant?
At Boston Logan’s Terminal E, ready to board, she checked her bags and confirmed that her paperwork was in order. Exchanged dollars for Euros and bought an emergency calling card. We shared sweet potato fries in a restaurant airport and waited until it was time to go.
She reviewed the sequence of steps to get to the connecting flight. Looked at airport maps. Double-checked her flight numbers. Between bites, she asked, “Do you think I’ll be OK? No one will steal me on the way there?”
I swear I had never said anything to her. But as she painted worried ketchup circles on her plate with a scrawny leftover sweet potato, it seemed we’d plucked our most irrational fears from the same menu. Her father and I answered with common sense comfort. “You’ll be safe,” we told her.
At the security line, she gave us each a one-armed hug. Then she moved beyond us, past the blue security ribbon, where we couldn’t follow.
My husband and I watched her purple backpack and sleek brown head move through the customs and security line. Kept vigil while she and her belongings were scanned. Stayed there until she disappeared beyond the columns and screens, into the mass of people moving away from us.
Even though we couldn’t see her or reach her, we lingered at Boston Logan, hanging out under the flight monitors. “Just in case.”
As the night progressed, she called my husband’s cell phone often while she navigated each leg of the journey from one connecting flight to the next. As I listened to her, a circle of questions and self-blame rose, like a flock of startled crows, whirling and squawking inside my head. That dark desperate inner voice demanded to know, “Why did you send her alone? Why didn’t you require the travel companion? What will you do if…if…if… Can you ever live with yourself if…if…if… If the worst happens?”
What was the worst that could happen? Realistically, she might miss a flight. We could handle that. As for the rest…don’t tell yourself those stories.
Using photos and maps, I described the color-coded systems for the gates, the location of the airline desk for information, asking an airline staff person for guidance.
I didn’t tell her about the argument looping repetitively in my mind, between the boogeyman and me. The panicky images in my head that I pushed away. Other thoughts. Like her cell phone ringing and never answered. A call from the host family in Milan, asking where she was. Crime scene units searching for a missing teen in the Madrid airport. A subtext of terror and adrenalin pumped so hard through my veins that I could taste it like dust and ashes on my tongue, though I tried to sound calm while talking to her.
I offered practical information. Then I told her that I loved her, and she was doing great.
She grew quiet on the other end of the line. Finally, I asked if she was okay. Her voice broke as she gulped and half-laughed, and replied, “Not really…”
How often does your almost-grownup child, who wants to be able to handle anything–because she’s 17 for chrissake–admit that she’s not okay?
It was 2 a.m. and I could not see straight or think rationally, and my daughter was at an airport partway round the globe.
My husband offered a running commentary. “Stay calm. If you panic, she’ll panic. She’s doing fine. She’ll be okay.”
Panic? Was I panicked? Was my reaction out of proportion to the situation? A reaction that somehow connected this moment to my younger daughter’s death? Probably.
So I struggled past that boogeyman’s presence (and its grip on my body) and wrenched back control of my voice. I used some of her dad’s gentle prompts, and my own trail map of information. “Look where you are. You’ve gotten this far. Just take it one step at a time. Okay? Next…”
Later she called back. Reported her next move. She was almost there. Almost there.
Almost there wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t sleep between 3-6 a.m.–when her flight would land in Milan. I waited with the phone close to my head, and all the computer screens and airport maps and emergency numbers displayed for ready access.
Once upon a time, I was restrained with only one doorway and one wall between me and my youngest child as she died. In that “addio” moment, I would have gone to any length to be with her and bear witness as she set out on a journey that I couldn’t take with her.
Now, I understand the value of letting go. I know the difference between my 17-year-old’s return-ticket trip and her sister’s one-way voyage. I know the difference between “ciao” and “addio.”
Gail Doktor has worked as a web and graphic designer and business writer. She holds a degree in English from U-Mass/Boston. She has lived on Boston’s North Shore in Ipswich, MA with her family for the almost two decades. Along the way, she has also been the primary caretaker of two daughters: Sarah (now entering her senior year of high school) and Jessie (1998-2007). After the death of her younger child, Gail became the director of the family’s non-profit foundation Bright Happy Power working with children and families living with cancer and other catastrophic challenges.