It’s been three hundred and sixty days since she left. Now there are only two to go and I can barely concentrate on anything, unless it is related to her.
Her bedroom has been completely gutted, cleaned and put back together. The vast shopping list is written, containing all the foods she has missed, like blueberries and strawberries, cheese and chocolate spread. Car cleaned inside and out (more so she can see the standard she must maintain). Insurance restarted (although she owes me) and the rest of the house is in the process of a thorough spring clean and sort out. It feels like I am in the final weeks of pregnancy. This need to nest is all consuming.
A year away from home is a long time. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure how I would get through it. I measured my progress by events that I had reached.
The start of school in September.
A weekend away with the girls in October.
My husband’s birthday in November.
Christmas in Blackpool (where I got horrendously drunk).
Reaching the halfway point in February,
and then the countdown to our visit in March, which left us with mixed emotions – utter joy at seeing her well and happy, but heartbreak at leaving her behind.
The final four months have been the longest, and the nearer her return gets the slower the time seems to move and the more I worry something will go wrong…
Bus crashes, flight hi-jacks, dengue fever, kidnapping at gunpoint – you name it, I’ve obsessed about it.
Before she left, she said to me as only an eighteen year old can:
Mumma, I want you to know, if I die when I am out there, I will have been happy and fulfilled.
Just don’t die on me, please, OK? I said, and have done at every opportunity since.
I know she will be apprehensive about coming home (as well as excited). She has changed and so have the rest of us. A year is an especially long time when you are eighteen. There will be a period of adjustment. I am sure it will be stormy at times. She left home a child and is returning an adult.
But right now all I care about is that she gets here.
So for one more time, my darling daughter, please, please don’t die on me. OK?
Saying goodbye to you for the second time was no easier than the first, particularly as you were entering the most chaotic bus station I ever experienced, situated in the murder capital of the world. I am sorry I cried, I did try not to go all ‘weird’ on you, but you and I are different in that way.
Spending a week with you in Honduras was truly special after eight months of having to make do with the lingering scent of you in your wardrobe – yes, I am going all ‘weird’ again.
I won’t lie, I was petrified about coming to Central America, and only you could have got me there. You were right of course; the people of Honduras are, in the main, kind and decent, just like people are everywhere. But, and call it paranoia if you will, where you saw curiosity in the attention of the locals, I saw hostility, particularly on the Bay Island of Roatan. The disparity in wealth is overwhelming and uncomfortable, particularly on cruise days, where tourists are disgorged onto the island en masse for five hours and not a minute more, to swarm over the local shops, waving dollars in their well-fed fists.
When we got the taxi to West Bay and you negotiated, in Spanish, a local price, I realised how much you have become your own person and how small my part in your life is now. And when the taxi driver stopped to pick up two Canadians from the port and charged them three times the amount he had charged us for a third of the distance, I couldn’t help but revel in our shared camaraderie and the reflected glory of being able to speak the lingo – even though of course, I don’t speak a word. It was both disconcerting and exhilarating to be the on the other side of our relationship.
I loved our bus ride to Santa Barbara. I loved the fact you wanted us to experience the way you travelled. Yes, we could have afforded a taxi, but then I would have missed the sellers, hawking juice in plastic bags, which you bite the corner off and suck out, jumping on at one stop and then off at the next. I would have missed the slow crawl through dusty towns and villages, where people gathered around the bus stops for a chat and a drink and something to eat because no one ever knows when the bus will arrive. Although poverty is not romantic, there is something to be said for the loss of community that individual wealth brings.
I won’t deny I nearly keeled over with heat stroke when we arrived in the tiny village of Gualjoco and foolishly decided to accompany you, in the heat of the afternoon, without a hat, to meet the Honduran families you have been living with since August. Your ten minute walk turned into a twenty minute hike, it seems you haven’t adopted the Honduran pace, even if you have adopted the people and the food.
I still can’t get my head around who would build a five star hotel in a place as remote as Gualjoco, particularly as we seemed to be the only guests. I don’t believe it is to benefit the local people, based on their reaction to us bringing fourteen children to swim in the hotel pool. But I am sure glad we argued our case and despite being fleeced, seeing the children’s joy made every Lempira worthwhile.
Like you, the Honduran people are at times hard to fathom. They want better lives, but there is a fatality in their reaction to what is happening in their country and like their government it seems ‘face’ is more important than action. I remember you said to me before we came out, the Honduran people are wonderful and they want you to be happy, even if that means they have to lie to you. As we waited for the flight to Roatan and every smiling airport worker after another said it would be leaving in five minutes (for over three hours), I couldn’t help but agree with your perceptive assessment of your hosts, but also your acceptance of their way of doing things.
‘Honduran time, mumma, just go with the flow.’
You cannot imagine the pride I felt, when the families put on a celebration meal for our arrival because it meant that you had turned into the adult I’d always hoped you would. The letter Jesus wrote to us, in which he said you were a strong woman and he would always hold you in his heart, left me breathless.
You wear no make-up or shoes, and your feet are dirty, your hair is loose and long, bleached to amber at the ends, your nail varnish is chipped and your clothes are worn out, but you have never looked so beautiful and I have never been so in awe of you.
The savage beauty of Honduras, I will forever associate with you at your most alive and essential.
Thank you my brave and adventurous daughter for giving me such incredible experiences and memories. I know you cannot, like the jungles of Central America, be tamed or contained and that to truly love you means having to accept this. I am trying really hard, and if you think this letter is me being ‘weird’ again, then you too will have to learn to accept me as I am.
Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will always be there for you, and will always welcome you home.
I just read this fantastic blog post from Mom at Work, Anna Spanos, about how she is working so hard to be a good mother, she feels she is failing to be precisely that.
“Some days […] I am so busy taking care of her that I barely get to just see her.”
Her sense of maternal guilt, although prompted by her daughter’s difficult birth, is one I recognise. If, like Anna, I make all my daughter’s food from organic ingredients, read to her every night, restrict TV viewing, disinfect every surface in the house twice daily and keep the households medicines locked away, then she will be safe.
The problem is, whereas Anna can tuck her daughter up at night and baby-proof the lounge, I no longer have that luxury because my daughter grew up!
Once, I was my daughter’s world, and everything she ate, drank, saw, read and believed in came from me. Now she is thousands of miles away in Honduras, a country I have never visited, volunteering in a cultural environment I have little knowledge of.
Saying goodbye to her at the airport in August last year, and watching her walk through the boarding gates, away from the safety of home and me, was physically painful, as if the umbilicus really is still attached. Knowing, at 18 years old, she was flying into the ‘murder capital of the world’ didn’t help matters.
I cried a lot in the first week and each night struggled to fall asleep as I imagined her hurt, alone and desperate for her mother, suffering from malaria or dengue fever, or worse, injured in a bus crash or diving accident, or worse still kidnapped by a gang – there is nothing I haven’t imagined in those dark hours before sleep.
But 8 months later, she is alive!!! and well, speaks fluent Spanish and has travelled far and wide across Central America. She has also turned nineteen, survived the end of the world (she spent New Year at the Mayan ruins in Copan) learnt to scuba-dive, teach English to stroppy teenagers (the same the world over it seems), wash her own clothes, cook and clean (hopefully), as well as snowboard down volcanoes and countless other adventures that I’d rather not know about. At this moment in time she is arranging to move from the project she is currently on to a new one because she feels she can do more to help the people of Honduras in a different organisation.
This is a daunting prospect for me and one I had not foreseen.
I vetted her first project, spent countless hours on the web searching obscure references for the possible dangers lurking behind the glossy website. I was there helping her to write letters to charitable trusts, doing research, fundraising, and sorting out travel arrangements to Scotland for her training. Even though she was striking out on her own and leaving home for the first time (to go to the murder capital of the world – can’t shake that thought), I had control, was able to steer and direct her.
This time round I have been left on the sidelines. She has researched and found the second project, gone to visit it, made the difficult decision to leave where she is and start up somewhere new, on her own. Although she has informed me along the way, she has not asked for my opinion, or for my permission. I have had to see things from her perspective and offer her guidance rather than tell her what she must do. I have had to trust her judgments and support her decisions, rather than make them for her.
This is by far one of the hardest aspects of motherhood I have ever encountered.
A big part of me wants to insist she stay where she is. Tell her that I know best and that she is silly to take on a new project.
Yet, when we manage to skype, I can hear the excitement in her voice and the determination that she is making the right decision.
And so I remind myself I brought her up to think for herself. To make thoughtful decisions and consider all options. This is the first time she has ever had to, and I have to trust she will do it the way I taught her.
Did I teach her well enough?
I don’t know what the right thing to do as a mother is (I never have). But I do know undermining her decisions, or trying to manipulate her thinking to suit what I want (to stay where she is because I know she is safe, if frustrated) is not the right thing to do, however difficult it is to give up control.
Her dad and I fly out to see her in a few weeks. By then her decision will be made and her new plans in place. What I do know is, I will hug her very tightly (and probably cry). I also know I will tell her how proud I am of her, and, for a few nights at least, I will get to tuck her up in bed again, just like I used to.
The challenges may change, but being a mother doesn’t. Nine months or nineteen, you still want to do everything you can to keep your child safe – and when you realise that you can’t, that despite all your efforts they will make their own decisions and mistakes, you can only hope you did it right, or at least you did it good enough.
Life cannot be baby proofed, but maybe you can life proof your child, so whatever they face they will make the right decision – or at the very least the one you would’ve made 🙂
What is the right balance? Do you feel you have got it right? All thoughts welcome.
I hate holidays. Not having time off work – I’m not that abnormal. No, I mean going away on holiday. I hate it. Hate it. Hate it.
It doesn’t matter where it is, or for how long. As soon as I get there I immediately start pining for home and suffer from terrible homesickness (not a vague depression, but an acute physical reaction, with vomiting and stomach cramps). I always used to put it down to a tummy bug, but it happens when I holiday in the UK, and without fail, as soon as I start the journey home, I begin to feel better. Once I cross the threshold, I am completely cured.
I’ve given up worrying about it or pretending otherwise. I am a homebody, and luckily I married a man as equally averse to travelling as I am.
The only thing I love more than being at home is being at home with both my children tucked up in bed, which at nearly 19 and 17 is rare occurrence these days; even more so since our daughter left for Honduras in August for a year’s volunteering and travelling.
She, as you’ve probably gathered, does not take after me, or her father. Her rucksack, covered in badges from places like Cambodia and Nepal, India and Thailand, belonged to my sister. My adventurous and determined sister, who filled her niece’s head with tales of exotic palaces and fragrant bustling markets, when she came to live with us in the last few months of her short, but drama packed life.
Ever since then (five years ago) our daughter has been adamant she would take a gap year after her A-levels. And ever since then, I have been trying to convince our daughter that 18 was far too young to go travelling and wouldn’t it be better all-round if she waited until after university.
Of course, my adventurous and determined daughter listened to her aunt, who, as she is dead (with all the glamour of dying young and beautiful) held an unfair advantage over me. Thanks sis. Not.
So with a heavy, heavy heart, I said goodbye to her in Heathrow terminal 5, four months ago. And of course she loves it there (for the most part), which is obvious by her lack of contact, unless she needs something.
But the other day she skyped me, not because she needed money or was feeling poorly, but because she wanted to ask if we would like to come out to visit. She wants us to meet the family she is staying with and the project she is working on.
My stomach flipped over, not in nervous dread, but in actual excitement. I miss my daughter. Her laugh. Her scent. Her jingly jewellery. Her funny songs. Her nicknames for us. Her energy. Her soul.
And unbelievably, one week later, everything is booked, even down to the airport parking (you may have gathered I am not one for spontaneity). Despite the fact Honduras is not what you would call a tourist friendly country – San Pedro Sula (which we fly into) has the dubious honour of being the murder capital of the world (though to be fair, this relates to the drug trade, fueled by the usage of cocaine in the US and of course UK) – I am still excited.
I finally get what all the fuss is about. I can genuinely join in the conversations at work (rather than feigning excitement). Except, for me, going to Honduras is a cure for chronic homesickness, brought on not by location this time, but by separation from a little bit of home. My daughter.
I know she will never live at home again, properly, as a child. But wherever she is, I know that is where I will want to be.
Maybe I am not such a homebody after all. And just maybe my sister is laughing at me.
If you weren’t dead already, darling sister, I think I might just murder you. But also thank you for giving my daughter the confidence to experience the world without fear, and in doing so, give me the incentive to see a little bit more of this wondrous planet that you weren’t ready to leave and would have loved to have visited with me.
Honduras here we come! Adios!
Anyone else hate going away as much as me? Or maybe there is something else that everyone, except you, seems to love? Share your quirks here. I won’t judge, much (unless it’s really freaky).
is a writer. She's also a firm believer in the positive power of prison libraries, a creative writing teacher, and Managing Editor of The Forge Literary Magazine. She's winner of a Waterstones' Bursary and her novel in perpetual progress was runner-up in Faber's Not Yet Published competition. Her fiction has been published in dozens of journals including 3 AM, PANK, Frigg, Neon & wigleaf.