Object Permanence

 Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
-Fleetwood Mac –

My teen went to high school today but she’s not a high school student. Instead she’s touring a local high school in an activity called “shadow day.” She’ll attend classes and, hopefully, get an idea of what it’s like to be a student there.

Much preparation went into this shadow day. She had to secure a coveted spot; get tested for Covid no more than 72 hours in advance; and, of course, select the right outfit. Of course, I did not prepare myself and so, I was not prepared for the nausea that rose in me the few seconds it took for her to turn from me, bounce up the steps and dart through the frosted glass doors into another world.

We learn the phrase “object permanence” when we first become interested in a baby. People whose job it is to know, explain that babies cry when mother goes away because babies just don’t understand the concept of “object permanence.” A thing can go away and still exist. But, they reassure us, once baby sees that father leaves and then comes back, baby won’t cry or at least won’t cry so much. And there is more good news. We can help baby understand through games like peek-a-boo. “See”, we say, “here’s my face, now it’s behind my hand. I’m still here!”

While standing with the other parents on the sidewalk, looking at the watercolor shapes and figures as they shifted behind the frosted glass doors, I wondered, “Do babies feel nauseous during their first peek-a-boo experience?” Maybe, they cry because of the nausea. I felt like crying, too.

Really, my daughter practices leaving all the time. She is getting pretty good at leaving. She is the captain of her ship. I need lots of practice standing on the shore. I try to help. “Look out,” I shout into the wind, “I crashed there once before!” If you have never shouted into the wind, try it. Your words don’t get very far. I am learning to live with the nauseous feeling.

But really, she has been practicing leaving for a long time, for like forever. Babies disappear into toddlers and then into little kids and then into big kids and on and on. The constant disappearing act leaves me off-balance. Think you know that little boy? Wait a few months and a new little boy will be in his place. Like in Maurice Sendak’s weird and spine-tingling picture book: “Outside, Over There” in which the baby was kidnapped by goblins and replaced with an ice baby. He’s a new boy with brand-new opinions, he prefers a different nickname, his best friend was an enemy yesterday, and he loves the food cooked by his friend’s mother but can’t stand it when you serve it. Then, to keep it interesting, wait a few months more and he’s back to the little boy you knew before, sort of.

But many things about childhood are outrageous and confusing. That is probably why it took so long for me to realize that the kids aren’t disappearing at all. They are being incorporated, like yeast into bread or in the way the seed incorporates the rain, soil and sun to become an apple. My daughter has been incorporating into herself. My care, meddling and feeding, like soil, sun and rain, are no separate thing but necessary and indivisible.

I’ll pick her up this afternoon. She’ll learn things I can’t even imagine. Perhaps the baby cries because it already knows the lesson of object permanence. There is no such thing.

I can’t wait to see her again.