Puzzle Pieces

The first time I left my daughter was over Labor Day weekend in 2016, when she was four months old. I didn’t just skip town; I left the country.

One of my closest friends had her bachelorette party in Vancouver, B.C., and I was excited to spend three days celebrating with my girlfriends. Perhaps even more, I was excited to get a few uninterrupted nights of sleep for the first time in what felt like forever.

I was the only mother on the trip, and thus the only one pumping breastmilk in the car as we waited in the interminable line to cross the border into Canada. That kind of set the tone for the trip for me.

For some reason when I think of that trip, I don’t remember so much about the restaurants we visited or the bars we hit. The things that jump out at me are all the places I hid to pump while the other girls played party games and refilled their wine glasses; the careful management of my ice packs and the refrigerator/freezer situation between one hotel room and one Airbnb that were inexplicably located a car ride away from each other; the endless math of figuring out when I’d need to pump next and whether to save the milk or dump it (thanks to my own refilled wine glass).

I also remember the twice-daily FaceTime calls with my husband and Evie, and how my quiet, gentle missing of her suddenly became a gut punch the moment I saw her.

I particularly remember one video call I made to Aaron while pumping. I decided it would be funny to train the camera on my chest when he answered the call, and then I quickly realized my mother-in-law was right there looking over his shoulder. I think I moved the camera quickly enough, but oh man, I sure never did that again!

The other reason I remember that call is because Aaron and Evie were at my in-laws’ house, and Evie was dressed in a new outfit they had given her. Sweet, right? I’m incredibly grateful whenever anyone gives her a gift, but at the time, she suddenly looked like a completely different baby to me. She was wearing an unfamiliar headband, top and pants, and somehow that made her look so much more grown-up. Since I’m her mother and The Organizer of All the Baby Clothes, she had never been dressed in something I hadn’t at least seen ahead of time.

I’m not sure why this affected me so much. It wasn’t about the clothes themselves, but the visual reminder that she was experiencing new things—and thus growing—without me. It was only for a few days, but in the scope of her existence at that point, a few days was not nothing.

I’m pretty sure I confined my tears to wherever I was FaceTiming and didn’t make a big deal about things among the larger group of girls, but I still remember the exact feeling. I felt it again just a few days ago.

The weird thing was that I felt it when I returned home after five days away. It was the longest I had ever been away from Evie, and I worried beforehand that I would break down into FaceTime tears again and again throughout the trip.

Maybe it’s because we’re no longer tethered by postpartum hormones and milk, or because my trip was busy and her little life is busy—with school, with friends, with endless viewings of Monsters, Inc.—but I was happy to see her on FaceTime and then happy to continue about my day. I was so excited to cover her squishy cheeks with kisses when we were reunited at the airport, but I wasn’t counting down the minutes.

It was only when I saw her then that the tears came. She’s always been the most beautiful thing in the world to me, but somehow she looked even more angelic now: blue eyes, smooth skin, hair curling into perfect chaos.

I told her how happy I was to see her. She asked me for Goldfish.

My in-laws (not the ones I almost flashed) picked me up, so I sat in the backseat with Evie on the way home. I studied her and found so many changes more permanent than a new headband. Her hair was definitely longer. She’ll grow out of those shoes any day now. Her previously broken sentences were more complete; someone who remembers how to diagram all the parts would approve. All this in five days. Five days.

That evening, after dinner and before her bedtime, we had a family snuggle on the couch while watching—what else?—Monsters, Inc. Aaron sat on the far right of the sofa; I squished in as close as I could without being on top of him; and Evie’s body molded to my lap, her head resting on my chest. As nice as it was to get away, sleep a little bit more and have a little bit less responsibility, this… this was the very best.

I didn’t realize I was part of a puzzle until I found myself nestled in with the other pieces.

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