“Bad credit, no cre—…” “Today, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa—….” “For your auto insurance needs—…” “Now, our next caller is—…”
“Mommy, I want number five!”
“Sorry Mark, no music, all the radios are playing commercials, even radio number five.”
“Shit, why is it jammed here?”
“Oh no, wait. Just the City of Ottawa who figured it was a good idea to resurface a major road in the middle of the morning rush hour.”
“I’m taking a shortcut.”
It’s 8:20 a.m. and Feng and I are stressed out and still half asleep. We can’t be late for Mark’s first day of school. Mark yawns. We aren’t morning people.
The narrow residential street where the massive school is hiding is jammed pack with cars and yellow school buses. I wouldn’t like to live right in front of the school—unless I was a teacher or the principal, then it may be convenient, of course.
“Just drop us off here. Say ‘bye bye daddy’!”
“Bye bye, daddy!”
Mark and I cross the street.
“Juliette! Turn around! I want a picture of you two!”
Mark and I oblige Feng, smile for the camera then rush to the schoolyard.
At daycare, I used to bring Mark inside the classroom. I would help him take off his shoes, then I would put his lunchbox in the fridge and chat with the teacher. There was no rush. It took a long time to reach the point where I could drop off Mark without drama. I knew he wasn’t crying all day long, of course, but it didn’t make me feel any better.
Now, I’m standing in the middle of the schoolyard and Mark is holding my hand very tightly. He probably thinks that, like a balloon, I’m going to fly away the moment he lets it go.
He’s going to have to let me go at one point, but I will say “bye bye” properly. I won’t catch him by surprise.
I close my eye for a split second. I picture myself on one of the many back-to-school days I had, from kindergarten to university. Everything always feels so big and confusing at first—the school, the people, the other kids.
But this time, I’m the mother and I’m in charge. Smarten up, girl!
One of Mark’s teacher’s assistants spots us and she greets Mark. I’m impressed she remembers his name—we only saw each other once, during the meet-and-greet session a few days ago.
She gives him a sign with his name to put around his neck.
Mark scratches his neck and another kid close to us does the same.
“Is the wool itchy?” I ask. Both the kid (“Nathan” says his sign) and Mark nod. “It’s just for today, I think,” I say.
Mark and Nathan take turns to go down the slide and suddenly, a bell rings. All the kids run to their teachers but the younger ones like Mark freeze, a puzzled look on their faces.
“When the bell rings,” I explain Mark, “you have to go meet your teacher.”
She is counting the kids.
“Okay Mark, this is the moment where…”
“… we say ‘bye bye’.”
“That right! Good boy. Wait. I have a little something for you.”
I hand him a piece of paper, folded into a square.
“Put this in your pocket. If during the day you feel sad, look at it or ask your teacher to read it to you.”
The teacher looks up. “That’s a good idea!” she comments.
“Mommy… you’re coming back, right?”
“Promise. At 3 p.m.”
“Yes, really and yes, promise. Have fun!”
I walk away as fast as I can, without looking back.
Mark didn’t cry. Amazing.
I’m about to. Silly me.
At 2:45 p.m., Feng and I are back, circling the block, looking for a parking spot. I walk to the fenced schoolyard where other parents are already waiting. I’m tired. I lean lazily against the fence and I try to spot Mark.
Little by little, groups of kids come out of the building, led by their teacher. On one side, those taking the schoolbus. On the other, those picked up by parents.
The kids are waiting in line, their too-big-for-them backpack on their back. Most are fidgeting, some are talking to each other, other are staring at the crowd of parents behind the fence.
Jeans, blue shirt… that’s Mark!
He hasn’t seen me yet, he is too far. He seems okay. He is one of the fidgeters—I suspect he needs to pee.
His group moves closer to the fence and suddenly, he sees me and his face lights up. I hear him talking to another kid beside him:
“My mommy is here!”
The other kid looks around and says: “I don’t see my mommy…”
Mark shrugs and says proudly: “Well, MY mommy is here!”
Finally, his teacher let them go through the door, one by one. Mark runs to me, hugs my leg and looks at me.
“You actually came back,” he notes, incredulous. “Mommy always comes back!”
“Of course, Mark. Mommy always comes back. Did you have a good day?”
He doesn’t reply, he is hugging me again.
“You come back! You came back! I wasn’t scared,” he adds. “I’m not a baby. I wasn’t sad. But you CAME BACK!”
I let out a sigh of relief. He looks okay and sounds okay.
“I’m a big boy!”
“You are,” I acknowledge.
There are milestones I didn’t care so much about—the first time using the toilet, the first solid food, the first night he slept through. But they are other I cherish—first smile, first “mama”, first steps.
I think I’ll cherish that one.