She walked into the woods without me, my daughter Wren, her tall, thin frame swallowed by trees adorned in yellow and orange. My hand still hangs in mid-air. She forgot to say goodbye.
It’s inevitable, really, her reaction. For the last 15 minutes, traveling the paved path before we detoured, I called out caution to the back of a fast-moving pink scooter while my almost seven-year-old constantly raced around corners just out of my sight.
When we finally made our way off the concrete path, Wren and her friends venturing across the creek using rocks as a bridge, she waited for the slightest nod of my head, a silent yes you may go. She darted.
"Kelly, Ali’s mom, will take them around the path in the woods and meet us back here after they explore." This information is offered by a fellow mom, Molly, whose daughter escaped into the woods right behind mine.
"I don’t want to go, mom," my four-year-old son whines into my hip, his hands finding their way around my waist. I’m not going, that’s a fact. The industrial-sized stroller required to hold my two-year-old twins, a small cooler, diaper bag, and purse will not off-road across a creek and up a steep incline, nor will it navigate a narrow path made primarily of dirt and small rocks. The pink scooter also sits abandoned at my feet where Wren dropped it before making her departure.
"It’s okay. Wren will be back and we’ll stay here with our other friends and play in the creek."
The creek is where the divide began, the older trailblazers escaping into the unknown, hunting for new possibilities just outside my reach. I saw the moms of other older adventurers wave goodbye to us as my daughter followed happily behind them, moving into the wilderness without a drop of apprehension.
The other group—three moms and a handful of younger children—wade down the creek, the kids eventually submerging themselves in the chilly water while the moms wait on the dry land. Words move easily between us: homeschooling curriculum, quirks of our kids, where we grew up. Our Littles throw rocks and watch clouds of dust form beneath the surface of the water, evidence of how a small drop can affect the whole.
Conversation stops when the wailing sound starts. At first it seems far away but it moves closer in intervals like something sneaking up on us from an indeterminate direction.
The Littles’ faces peer towards the sky, their tasks momentarily abandoned while they attempt to locate the sound now assaulting their ears. Squinting into the clouds, it appears they expect to see an airplane or helicopter. When that doesn’t happen within a minute, they return to the task of creating chaos in the pond, their concerns gone as they choose to stay ambivalent about a threat they cannot see.
"It’s Wednesday," I remind myself out loud. "It’s the day the city tests the tornado alarms."
"My daughter is probably freaking out. She hates those alarms," Molly says, concern setting into her face.
I think of my daughter who is aware of what those alarms mean. The last time we heard them was Mother’s Day during breakfast. Looking outside our front window, I saw the sky colored an emerald green and ready to explode. Using our calm but serious voices, my husband and I collected the kids, instructing them to make their way to the front bathroom quickly.
"They said the bathroom, get in the bathroom!" my daughter ordered her brother, her voice betraying only the slightest bit of fear. She climbed into the bathtub and held her pillow at the ready in case she needed cover while my husband and I perched on the floor. She understood if the winds grew too strong, her dad and I would lay across the pillows, the tiny bodies of our children underneath, our adult bodies attempting to keep them from slipping away.
"This will be over soon," I told her. She nodded and smiled, sat in silence as we waited for the storm to pass. The anxious questions never came, nor did the tears. Occasionally she turned her head to check on her siblings, offered them reassuring smiles.
My chest tightens. The sky above is clear, but the alarms won’t stop. Inhaling through my nose, just like I taught her to do when she was younger, I wait for the fear to pass, realizing it belongs fully to me.
"I miss Wren," my son says as he tosses another rock into the creek. His hazel eyes are downcast, the curiosity the alarms originally presented gone. Only the missing lingers, the awareness of her absence pressed against the longing for her return, a longing I understand. The shift in his demeanor causes his enthusiasm for chaos to wane. He abandons the rocks and the creek, leaves them to resettle.
"She’ll be back, babe. She’s just off exploring the world."
The World. Without me, my mind adds, releasing those last two words from where they sat for the last half hour. Standing by the creek, the three Littles at my side, I scan the horizon for her face, strain my ears for the sound of footsteps. There is nothing but the shuffling of the children still near me, the ones who still feel the primal need for the proximity and guidance I can offer. They’ll follow my daughter’s lead eventually, until all of my children are in the world without me. I’m proud but anxious, and these feelings are as muddled and foggy as the sand still attempting to settle after the disruption in the creek.
She’s been preparing for this, the journey away, and she’s been preparing me. A few weeks ago she pointed to the sky and announced, "Mom, when the sun is setting and you see that color pink in the sky, think of me because that’s my favorite pink." I nodded and stared into the distance, pondering the day I would need to remember. We watched together as the pink faded and the sky turned a dusky gray, her profile illuminated by the streetlights as she continued to stare into the night. Her mind wandered to places I couldn’t see, far off lands beyond the horizon where she would journey on her own. These tiny pebbles, small endings, drop into the creek causing a ripple, the overall effect that I can’t see my own reflection clearly. Her entrance into the woods leaves me in a wilderness of my own, and whether she is aware of it or not, she's offering me breadcrumbs: a sunset, the color pink.