Sitting in a two-hour traffic jam on the way to Heathrow, I look at my girls, fast asleep, entwined like kittens, and think how many times I’ve watched them like this. I wonder how many more times I will. I fiddle with my phone, wondering if I should tell Singapore Airlines one of their passengers might only just make the flight.
Finally, we pull up at the drop-off point and Loulou, 15, helps her older sister Ellie with the overfilled rucksack, as they pose for photos. I’d planned this moment for months but with five minutes before the flight closes, I hurl the rucksack on a trolley, scream down the phone at Singapore Airlines to hold on and shout ‘follow me!’ to the kids. My husband, Jed, screeches up the car park ramp and disappears. The girls are taken aback – this isn’t how it was meant to be. Ellie stutters: ‘I can’t leave without saying goodbye to Dad.’
I’d practised the emotions I might feel when Ellie left for a seven-month gap year. I swore she’d have to shake me off her ankles at Departures, laughing at her wailing mother, unable to contain the width of her grin at the thought of adventures ahead. Instead, she was having a panic attack. Where was Dad? I pleaded with the air steward to give us a few more minutes, and she smiled knowingly and nodded. Miraculously, Jed arrived and, as we hugged then sobbed, the clock began the long, slow, seven-month countdown.
Then Ellie was gone. And we knew she’d never really be back. In seven months, she’d be home for a bit before uni. And then, because the travel bug will bore into her soul, like it did to her father and me, she’ll spend her holidays exploring the world. Then she might get a job, a flat, a bloke, a house, a better job, have children and keep travelling. She wants to be a visual anthropologist or a wildlife film- maker; she’s already a TEFL teacher with an internship in a Thai school, and she’s only 18. She’ll never be ours again.
We drove home in silence. Friends told me when your child leaves home, it feels like you’ve lost a limb. Or that your child has died. Everything looks the same, but she’s not there. I couldn’t even look at Loulou. There’s a photo of the two of them at home aged about three and six. Ellie is putting Loulou’s gloves on for her and Loulou is holding her little hands out, for Ellie to make warm. It’s a metaphor for their relationship that has lasted, and I couldn’t bear to think how Loulou would find the winter without her sister.
Days turned into weeks and while Loulou still mourns, life has got into its stride again. It’s been a month and my limbs are intact. I cleared out her room and after scooping out months’ worth of cereal bowls and clothes she’d ‘borrowed’ from me, it doesn’t feel like she’s dead. Skype helps. Sometimes we chat for a whole half hour; we can see where she lives and the school she teaches in. It wasn’t easy at first; the presence of her room-mate made her seem distant, and I couldn’t do the dogs’ voices if there was a stranger listening to our family nonsense. So I emailed.
I didn’t expect a reply. Ellie has always refused to write; both her father and I are writers, but she prefers photography to record the poetry that she sees in life.
But then I found the silver lining. She wrote back. And she writes every day, until the scent of incense and the cry of the cockerel across the paddy field, the giggling of her six-year-old pupils and the life-changing peace of Buddhist temples have tumbled into our everyday lives. It brings the Asia of our backpacking days back into our very English world and reminds us of the thrill of the open road. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child?
As for Loulou, she’s googling Camp America.
Read Letting go of grown-up kids by Diane Priestley on LifeLabs