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The Purple Crayon | By Diana Divecha

When my daughters were preschoolers, one of their favorite books was Harold and the Purple Crayon. In one uninterrupted purple line, Harold drew what he wished for—the adventure he wanted to go on, the doorway he needed to escape through, the moonlight he needed to see by. It was a simple allegory of the belief in a child’s potential.

Last fall, my daughter Mia was drawing her own door but hadn’t yet stepped through it. She was preparing to leave for college—shopping for supplies, getting new glasses, and having coffees and mani-pedis with friends. And, she decided to take a break from the 18-month relationship with her boyfriend, who was also her best friend.

“I can’t imagine what you must be feeling,” I said to her, “but if you want to talk, you can.”

Her chin quivered.

“It’s hard,” she said. “But we want to give each other the space to be fully present at our different colleges.”

“It’s like you’ve drawn a door but haven’t had a chance to go through it yet,” I said, reminding her of Harold. “It’s the most difficult point in a transition, when you’ve let go of the familiar, but you haven’t yet been drawn into the future.”

That absolute transition point of no momentum fascinates me. It’s like the top of the Ferris wheel that is neither rising nor falling, the 12 o’clock that is neither morning nor afternoon, the still point between the in-breath and the out-breath. It is a delicate point of balance where everything around has shifted—location, friends, identity—but the future is not yet tangible.

The next day, my husband, Arjun, and I drive Mia to college. We are met at her dormitory by staff who shout out in unison, “Welcome to college, Mia Divecha!” The university doesn’t allow a moment of hesitation. They understand transitions and draw a detailed picture of the frame they want a student to enter.

The rest of the day is a blur of unpacking, meeting people, and attending programs. At 5 o’clock the campus transforms into a landscape of small family constellations saying goodbye. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters are teary-eyed or red-nosed, and I swear I see currents of love surging up from the campus, like some high-voltage explosion. Arjun, Mia, and I say our own farewells, smiling through tears, and I put my arm around Arjun to gather his sobs away from Mia. She has already turned around, her mind on the evening activities architected by the school. Even though we’ve already launched our older daughter to college, Mia is our last, and I’ve been preparing for this moment for weeks. I am exhausted by the sustained emotion and anticipation and am ready for this handoff to be over. That night I leave the light on in Mia’s room.

The next morning, my back aches, my head throbs, and I am numb with sadness and self-pity. Our two dogs jump on the bed to rouse me for breakfast but I resent their intrusion and ignore them. Downstairs, Arjun is making tea in his crisp suit and tie, ready to move on. My business of running a family, however, seems to have suddenly stopped. A writing project looms, like a vague outline of a door, but I’m not able to walk through it.

I decide instead to sit for meditation and so I close my eyes, roll my neck, and settle in. As I breathe and focus, the sadness and heaviness that has enveloped me starts to lift and melt into a shimmery light that feels like warm butter pouring down through my head and body. My agitated neurons are soothed, and I am profoundly grateful, not only for the feeling, but also for making it to this point in life, through the intense emotional labor of shepherding a family.

Over the next few days I am a bit of a stranger to myself. I read A Suitable Boy, a classic, sprawling, Indian soap opera, to fill my space with other people’s families. At the grocery store, I resist buying Mia’s favorite cheese. I feel profoundly irrelevant and yet I revel in the freedom to have popcorn and granola for dinner. I eye the girls’ bedrooms from the perspective of guests—one needs a rug, another a side table—and it feels good to be in their rooms and be calm. Most of all, I feel deeply quiet, as if listening to hear exactly who and where I was before I was a mother. And I listen for echoes of what has just passed and wonder where in the universe the noise of young children resides. Sometimes all I can take is the sound of the light changing from night into day, and day back into night, as I sit on our deck wrapped in a blanket of stillness, with only the trickle of the nearby creek reminding me that life moves on.

Then comes my birthday, my first with no kids at home. My husband plans a sleepover party for me with a group of women friends and hints at some surprises. In the days leading up to the party, I tidy up the bedrooms and put flowers in vases. My excitement is building, like that of a 12-year-old anticipating her birthday party.

My friends blow in with a whirl of energy, shimmering, lit fom within. I feel them more than I see them—my world suddenly sparkling and alive, like the day Mia was born. We celebrate all evening, talking through spa treatments, Japanese food, Bananagrams, and wine, and in the morning we head to the farmers’ market for a chilaquiles breakfast. After weeks of cocooning, I feel myself begin to unfurl, and I’m grateful that, for this moment, Arjun took the crayon and reminded me what else is in my picture. Now I’m ready to hold my friends’ hands and walk through that door.

Diana Divecha, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in Berkeley. She is currently at work on a book about her favorite research in child development.

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Illustration by Susan Sanford.