In April, our fifteen-year-old daughter, Claire, traveled to France for two weeks on a school exchange program. The trip included a home stay in the southern town of Montpellier with visits to Paris before and after. On departure day, Claire was ready! She had her passport, Euros, and a pickpocket-proof waist pouch. Good walking shoes and layers. A neck pillow, gum, and a sleep mask. Deep breaths, flexibility, and a sense of adventure. Claire’s French teacher smartly arranged departure from school instead of the airport, and Claire was quickly caught up in the momentum of stowing luggage and getting on the bus. So, we gave last hugs and went on our way without too much fuss. I had to turn quickly and head to the parking lot so she wouldn’t see my tears.
Why was I crying? Just the visceral feeling that a piece of my heart was going to be very, very far away. Across an ocean away.
I can report now that Claire had an amazing time. None of the atrocious, heart-rending things I tried not to imagine happened. But here’s what did happen: Notre Dame burned down, and Claire’s flight home was cancelled. And I think those two unexpected events may have shaped this experience – her version and mine – as much or even more than the sightseeing and school going and French family living.
The students, teenagers accustomed to much of life being texted and Snapchatted and Instagram’d, had been reminded often that they’d get the most out of their French experience if they just lived it. Claire would be able to use WiFi when available, and otherwise would rely on old-fashioned communication methods like signs and maps and questions (in French, of course). All the kids were drilled on what do in an emergency or if lost in Paris, and that was that. Claire sent a few texts and photos from the airport, and then we really didn’t hear from her again until she was in Montpellier, usually to say goodnight or send a quick picture. She was documenting with her mind, saving her stories to tell in person.
Except when Notre Dame was on fire. Claire’s group had toured it only days before, and the impact of being in this magnificent, iconic place and then seeing it burn, witnessing this loss while in France with a French family, was incomparable. That was the second day I cried, because I missed my daughter, and because scary things do happen when your children are far from you, even when you keep telling yourself they won’t.
Then it was the last day. I woke early Easter Sunday morning knowing Claire was already in the air. Then I saw the barrage of texts splayed across my phone screen, the last one from Claire’s teacher ending in “more information to share when we get to our hotel.” Hotel? I sat up and scrolled through the messages – “Technical problems, flight delayed … flight cancelled … will advise about a new flight … will not be departing today … will have more information to share when we get to our hotel.” By mid-afternoon we’d learned that Claire would arrive home Monday evening after a layover in Chicago.
I was deflated. I cried again. I really missed my daughter. And now she was stuck in Paris. I know, there are greater hardships in life, but what if there were more delays, cancellations, changes, fires? I just wanted her to be home. Meanwhile, from the airport Marriott, Claire updated us. She was in a single room, thank goodness, after two weeks “without a moment to myself.” She was eating goat cheese pie (?) and deciding which of the queen beds to sleep in. She maintained her sense of humor, saying she was fine, she just had to roll with it, and she’d be home eventually. She was rolling with it, so I had to do the same.
Monday was so looooong. I couldn’t focus. I tracked Claire’s progress with Find My Friends. Then she landed at Chicago O’Hare, and we exchanged a flurry of texts – “back in the USA … almost there … maybe you should try Chicago pizza … didn’t think I’d be seeing Illinois over spring break.” Then, cease flurry, a few of my funny comments still hanging.
Forty-five minutes later, a cryptic message – “sorry didn’t answer before. Things not going well right now.”
I text back – “Okay. Are you okay?”
My phone rings.
She’s in tears. “everything’s okay, I’m okay, we almost missed our flight, we had an hour and a half layover in Chicago but we almost missed our flight. I’m okay now, though. Okay, I have to go, bye.”
I say goodbye to emptiness. I send a careful text back – “Glad you’re okay. Take some deep breaths. Everything will be fine.”
She replies a few minutes later – “on the plane now, I can’t wait to get home. also, don’t be alarmed but I will most likely cry when I see you.”
Me too, sweetie, me too.
Hours later in the Philadelphia airport, we wait, scanning the throngs of arrivals until we see her. Then she sees us and picks up her pace until she’s in my arms. And Claire isn’t a hugger (or a crier).
Later she will tell us all her stories about the wondrous sights of Paris, the Seine riverboat, Versailles, the Metro, the trains, the beach near Montpellier, her French school days. And about the last day, running through O’Hare airport, shoes in one hand, toiletry bag in the other, desperately trying to reach the gate in time so she could just come home. As she tells this story, she will laugh. And through her laughs and breathless description, as if she’s running still, she’ll repeat, “but I did it, I did it, I made it.”
Not just made the flight home but handled a stressful and unfamiliar situation independently. France is beautiful, and I’m sure each day of Claire’s time there taught her something new about the world. But I think the journey home may have taught her the most about herself, revealing her ability to be vulnerable and self-reliant all at the same time, which is a quality with its own true beauty.
This post first appeared on the Baby Merlin Company website. For more information and great reading, check out the Baby Merline blog at https://www.magicsleepsuit.com/blogs/mss-blog .