Two years and some months ago, I took my daughter to Target to buy her first backpack. It was the beginning of the summer of 2017, and she was going to a summer preschool for the next two months.
While we walked the aisles and found the perfect Anna and Elsa backpack and matching lunchbox, I told her that in two years I was going to bring her back for a new backpack for the first day of kindergarten.
What followed was a blur of heartache and darkness as we struggled to emerge from the depths of trauma, addiction, and mental illness that plagued our family. For part of that two years, I forgot to bathe her. I forgot to dress her, and she wore the same clothes for days on end. I neglected to offer her healthy foods, and what started out as a cute episode of Paw Patrol on YouTube morphed into images of terror as the videos played to her vacant eyes. Because I was there, but I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there at all.
But then the sun rose and stretched on the horizon. I found the right medications. I stayed sober. And the world started to feel like a Beatles song. The sun was here, and I was all right.
Today we walked back into that same Target, her pushing the cart and asking me to move out of her way. She was ready to push it on her own: be a big girl.
“Head toward that big pencil up there,” I said, pointing ahead to the back-to-school shopping area.
We made it with few mishaps, and as I massaged my cart-bruised knee, we picked out all the necessary items: pencils, fine-tipped Expo markers, crayons…we dropped them into the cart and headed to check out.
While the kind gentleman at the checkout scanned our items, I was bursting to tell him the news: my baby girl was going to kindergarten! She was going to school! The joy I felt at seeing the school necessities pile up in my cart was ineffable.
As we walked away, I said to her, “Remember when we came to buy you your backpack for preschool? Do you remember what I said?”
She didn’t. It doesn’t matter. I always will.
When we got home, she happily danced and spun while I pulled her old backpack—that same backpack—out of the closet. I opened it up, and we took out the miscellaneous toys and books she had packed into it when we first started playing school some months ago. And then the lump rose in my throat. And the tears flooded my eyes.
It was happening. That two years, those days of hell that stretched on infinitely, they were over. And we were here, here in this living room. She was bathed, in clean clothes, smiling. She was whole, and so was I.
As I packed away the pencils and markers… as I safely tucked in the glue sticks… I realized I was packing my little girl up as well. I was packing those baby memories, those preschool days, away for safekeeping. And I was packing up the horror too. I was smoothing out the wrinkles, giving those dark parts of both of us love and attention, knowing that in mere days I would send her off into the world. That I too would be starting a new year of school.
Will her teacher be patient with her? Will the kids take to her? Will she be kind? Will she be safe?
It was not just a backpack I packed today. It was her future. It was her past.
And it was mine too, because I may not have been there before, but I sure am now.