I have two photos of my daughter Lili on my desk, one taken in front of the Brownstone School on West 80th Street in New York City in September 1996, the other taken at Ithaca College just a few days ago. I also have one of those etched acrylic pieces she gave me for Mother’s Day a few years ago, with her “10 Reasons Why I Love You.”
I look first at the photo of Lili, her father Gregory, and me in front of Brownstone, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013. Lili was just two and beginning daycare at this wonderful school in our neighborhood.
Vivian, the teacher for the Red Room, warned the parents that the children would have separation anxieties, and we were allowed to wait at the school for an hour, out of sight, just in case. Lili went into Red Room, proudly stacked her box of diapers in the bathroom, and took her seat on the floor in a circle of children — African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian. She pointed at her father and me and instructed, “You go.” Gregory and I felt that since our adopted daughter had spent her first year at the Hefei Children's Welfare Institute in China, she was a survivor, not one to cling. We told the "You Go" story to friends for years.
I look next at the Mother's Day gift. There are the usual reasons for why my daughter loves me: “You’re Kind and Caring” and “You’re Always There to Hug Me.” But numbers six and seven mean the most to me: “You Give Me Confidence” and “You Let Me Stand On My Own.”
Since we lost our Gregory to melanoma in 2007, I have resisted the urge to cling to my stoic, beautiful daughter. When I hug her, she cringes, especially if we are in public, which has become increasingly rare. But those precious final days together as mother and daughter, she relented a bit, and even got into bed with me and our two dogs, Sophie and Henry, some mornings.
Lili is an organized child; she’d been packed for college for two months, all of her things neatly placed into large plastic boxes which she bought on her own at Bed Bath and Beyond. I had little involvement, not because I didn’t want to, but because I know my daughter. She has always been independent, wanting to do things her way.
When I dropped her at college in Ithaca I remembered the command from years ago at the Brownstone School on West 80th Street and did not linger over goodbyes. I did what I had to do. I stood on my own, just as I had let her do.