It’s a beautiful Bay Area afternoon. Josh and I have just finished eating lunch at synagogue after a lovely bat mitzvah service of a friend’s daughter. We’re fetching the three-year-old from the play yard, enjoying the last of our one-kid-at-home hours before picking up Ella from the camp bus later on. I fish my silenced phone out of my purse to check the time and see what’s what.
Twelve voicemails and recent calls. My heart drops into my stomach. What’s going on? I scroll through the call list: six messages from the same vaguely familiar area code, plus one from a friend whose daughter is at sleep away camp with mine. My brain immediately goes to the worst-case scenario: did something happen on the way home from camp?
I listen to the first call. It’s Ella’s camp counselor: “Um, hi. We’re here at Piedmont Park with Ella. It’s about 12:15 and she’s waiting to be picked up…” I check the time. It’s 1:20. Crap. There are four more calls from the same number. I skip them and listen to the one from my friend, “So camp has been calling and Ella’s at the park. I’m on my way to pick her up…call me.”
How did I screw up the pick up time? I’ve had 2 p.m. on my calendar and in my head for weeks. I feel a familiar, harsh surge of anger at myself, followed by my old pal self-blame. I feel like such an idiot! I snap at Josh as he scrolls through his own slew of voicemails. “Come on!” I practically shout at him outside the doors of the synagogue, “WE’VE GOT TO GET TO THE PARK. NOW!”
In the car, my frustration gives way to a knot of worry. Ella is 12 and able to handle so much more emotionally than she could when she was younger, but a part of me is really nervous that she’ll feel forgotten and that somehow that feeling will never leave her. It’ll be the root of all her grown-up fears and anxiety. She’ll end up in major therapy because she’ll never get over The Time We Were An Hour Late To Pick Her Up.
I stare out the window wishing we could drive a little faster. I close my eyes, inhale and exhale. I can’t change what’s happened, but I can forgive myself a little for it. I don’t always get it right. I want to, but I don’t. I don’t screw it up all the time, or even most of the time, but I do some of the time. Okay. True. Fine. I need to let it go. I refocus my thoughts, collecting all the bits, big and small, that I do get right. I think of how fiercely I love my kids and remember that my love outweighs my f-ups in the most glorious and important ways.
I know there’s no redeeming quality to beating myself up, something I’m trying not to do so much anymore. I need to get out of myself and be present for Ella and whatever emotions she’ll bring to me in the next few minutes.
We round the corner to the park. There she is, sitting on her duffle, her golden hair twisted up in a bun, surrounded by four counselors, chatting, waiting. Josh pulls over and I jump out and half-jog down the sidewalk as best as I can in my heels and wrap dress. Ella comes running to meet me, falling into my arms, bursting into tears. I fold her into me, cradling her head to my chest.
“I’m so, so sorry baby,” I whisper. “I got the pick up time wrong.” She gulps and heaves.
“It’s okay mama, it’s okay,” she says once she catches her breath. Her simple compassion drains the tension out of me. I let her cry some more, feeling her sun-warmed skin against mine, grateful and happy to have her home. When she finally pulls away, she gives me a small smile and swipes at her wet cheeks.
“When you guys didn’t answer your phones, I just got so worried that something bad had happened to you,” she says.
Wow. She wasn’t so upset about being left or forgotten; she was more worried something had happened to us. I look at my big girl and appreciate all the ways she’s growing up and gaining a wider perspective of the world outside herself. We are a lot alike, my sweet daughter and I, two works in progress, learning to let go of the screw-ups and remember the wins.