I drove my youngest daughter to the airport on Tuesday night. She’ll be away for six months.
It’s not quite the empty nest syndrome, but when I came home earlier in the afternoon after two days at the beach with my husband and grandsons, a terrible pall descended and I recognised the nagging sadness of farewell.
My daughter will return and the six months of her time away will pass soon enough, but things will never be the same again.
A trip like this is bound to be life changing, especially for my daughter, who is going to expand her mind, despite her ambivalence about leaving.
On the trip in the car on the way home after we had watched her go through the opening into the departures zone, where people queue for ages to get through customs and to their eventual flight, I told my daughter’s boyfriend about the reasons for my desire to avoid travel except when necessary.
For him, my daughter’s leaving is saddest of all, as they’ve not been long together. She’s been planning this university semester overseas for more than a year, well before they recognised their connection.
In any case, as we walked back to the car after our tearful farewells, I told my daughter’s boyfriend how it was when I was a child when relatives visited from Holland, or in the case of one of my uncles and his immediate family, from Indonesia.
The joy at the airport, the pleasure of my extended family in Melbourne coming to greet relatives from overseas and my mother’s delight were all palpable.
But at the other end, when it came to say goodbye, my mother’s grief swamped me as she waved to her father, on that last time she ever saw him after he had walked through those doors.
My grandfather was already in his late seventies and soon after his return to Holland he developed blindness and later died at the age of eighty-six years.
My mother was not able to be with either of her parents when they died. And both died not long after respective trips to Australia. The trips must have taken it out of them, those long journeys by sea and later by air.
I can still feel my mother’s pleasure against her grief the moment I go through those electronic doors at any airport.
The crisp air-conditioned comfort inside, the reams of people lugging suitcases across the walkways up and down escalators, the people who mill around signboards to read the names of destinations, the flight numbers and airline logos splattered in neat lines that keep rolling over.
There’s a sign to let you know that certain flights are closed and if one was your flight you’re too late to take it now.
And one to tell you your loved one’s plane has landed and you rush down the escalator to the arrivals section underground where all arrivals disembark. And wait and wait and wait until your loved one has cleared customs.
People hang over the iron bar with you and wait for the doors to open to reveal their loved ones who are coming for the first time or returning from a trip.
There’s a buzz in arrivals with the occasional whoop of joy when some new longed for person goes through the double doors and looks to right and to left along the corridor that leads out in either direction.
They look to find someone they know, someone who’s expecting them and when they lock eyes on that someone there’s the mutual grin of satisfaction, the squeals of joy, the brisk movements that signify they’re together at last.
All this joy at arrivals, but on the next floor above we see the sorrow of goodbyes where couples hug one another, families like ours give one last squeeze to a departing daughter who will be back soon enough, but the ghosts of past relatives who once went through the departure doors – my aunts, uncles, cousins and my grandparents – hover on the sidelines.
These relatives could not return. Their lives were lived elsewhere, but for a while during visits, their lives joined ours and we could be together in the flesh. But in that first hello, as Gillian Bouras writes, we heard the echo of their goodbyes.
We’ll skype and text and use Facebook I tell my daughter and she tells me the same, but it’s not the same.
The virtual world is a poor substitute for the real one, where people like me who are not big on touching cannot reach out to touch, to stroke a cheek, to hold a hand, to pat a back. The deprivation seems unbearable even as when we are together in person I might hold my distance. Now the actual distance divides more acutely than any skype screen can allow.
My grandsons are young. They will wonder in a few days where their aunt is, but for now, although we have told them she’s gone away for a few months, they cannot know what her absence means.
They will recognise it only in a slowly dawning sense of loss.