Google Maps says Cullowhee, North Carolina, is 525.8 miles away. With current weather conditions and traffic flow, I could get to your condo in 8 hours and 4 minutes. We both know I drive fast and pack light, two things I learned from you. I could be on your doorstep tomorrow morning, my hands shoved tight in my pockets as I try to explain how it is that I’m 21 years old and missing you like crazy.
When I was in first grade, I went through a period of separation anxiety. You’d wait for the bus at the end of the gravel drive with me, knelt down so you could look right in my eyes. “I love you,” you’d say, and I would cry. Because I believed you. Because you made me feel safe. You still do, Mom. Even 525.8 miles and one divorce away. I just wish I could make you feel the same way.
After a few weeks of my before-school-crying fit, you read me Audrey Penn’s The Kissing Hand. Now a worldwide favorite, the book mirrored our experience. To comfort her young son, Chester, Mrs. Raccoon kissed his hand every morning before he went to school with all the other forest critters. He held her kiss in a tight fist so that when he started to miss her, he could open the palm of his hand and feel close to her again.
After that, you started to plant a kiss in each of my hands when we saw the school bus approaching from down the street. “Save them,” you’d say as you walked away. After I’d plopped down in my assigned seat and the bus hissed into gear, I put each hand in the pocket of my jeans, storing away the kisses until I missed you. Then I would pull out one hand and place it gently on the side of my face as tears welled up in my eyes.
After my father divorced you, I started to feel that separation anxiety again. But you weren’t around for kisses anymore. I’d be in the recliner reading John Steinbeck or petting the cat, wondering where you were. The hands of the clock ticked their way late into the night until I accepted you weren’t coming home. My eyes grew heavy keeping watch for you and I would fall asleep. First I was sad, then I grew angry. Not at you exactly—just at all the things that had made you the way you became. I felt like you were 500 miles away long before you went away. Sometimes it hurt so bad I couldn’t breathe.
I remember the first time you alluded to your drinking problem. “Apparently me and tequila don’t mix,” you said early one morning as I was about to walk out the door. I don’t know why you said something that day. For the most part, our once open relationship had faded into secrets and shame. You didn’t talk about the men you went out with or where you went. And I played that game too. I didn’t talk about the cigarettes in my coat pocket or the fact that I was physically attracted to other girls. Even when I walked in late at night, dizzy with a nicotine buzz, I didn’t say a word about how much it hurt to hide from you. And even when you stumbled through the door one morning, giggling and disoriented from the booze, you didn’t say anything more than, “I only had a few drinks.” The secrets made me feel crazy. My anger turned into something deeper, something I couldn’t articulate. We were strangers sitting in the same living room, and I resented you. I checked my pockets, but the kisses were all gone. I saw the hurt in your eyes when you checked your pockets too. No wonder you started looking for love in all the wrong places.
In my depression, I started skipping classes, and then I started to fail. When I talked about that, I did so flippantly to hide my embarrassment. You were worried, but you didn’t say as much as I wanted you to. On your way out the door for another date, you’d run your fingers through my hair and say you loved me. “Get some homework done tonight,” you’d say just before the door clicked shut. I stopped asking where you were going and when you’d get home after I caught you driving home drunk.Inside, my heart screamed as I watched you skip meals and pop sleeping pills. But my face told a different story. I stared ahead at the television and blinked through the pain until you faded from my mind again. And you knew it. I picture you now, taking shots and dancing alone in some bar knowing I was sitting at home condemning you, wondering why you’d sopped being my image of perfect safety and wisdom. God only knows which of us was sadder. Maybe God was the saddest. He lost both of us sometime between the divorce papers and North Carolina.
If you were home today, Mom, I’d make you toast and fix you a cup of coffee. I’d watch all the Jurassic Park movies and recite all those stupid lines with you. We could clean out the fridge and throw out all the booze. I’d tell you about my favorite yoga poses and the research project I’m working on. We’d delete all those terrible voicemails from my father. I’d show you this letter, my own version of The Kissing Hand. And I would tell you I’m sorry—sorry for judging you when I should have looked you in the eye and said, “I’ll be right here. Come home soon.”