MY DAUGHTER, Andrea, graduates from high school this month and I, a woman raised in a house with six siblings, a woman who since the age of 19 has shared her home with a young girl, will live alone for the first time.
For most of her life I looked forward to this day, and for the past year I have dreaded it. I am torn with conflicting emotions: joy that her life has come to this and sadness because we must part.
Andrea is my best friend. The same failed marriage that means I will now live alone also forced us to be best friends, clinging to each other for security. Our friendship was sealed, too, because at various times I moved the two of us around the country and settled us in towns where we knew no one but each other.
So I am panicking in a big way. Not only will I have to live alone, but I am wondering if I have prepared Andrea for the world.
When she used to go away to her grandma's and grandpa's for the summer, I would worry over whether or not I packed her toothbrush, her comb, all of her jeans. But that was small stuff. I ask myself now if I packed inside her all that she will need to make it in this world. Did I teach her to love? To love herself? To love her young black woman self?
There were two other times that I came close to feeling the way I do now. The first was when she was about a year old and I (a single mother) was going out on a date. I took her to a babysitter, kissed her goodbye and walked out the door.
There was silence. For the first time in her life she didn't cry when I walked out. I stood outside the babysitter's door, and to the bafflement of the guy I was dating, I started crying.
"She's not crying" was all I could get out between whimpers, as the patient young man looked at me as if he was trying to decide whether or not he wanted to be seen in public with me. I was dumbfounded by the idea that my baby was growing up and struck by the implication that, perhaps, she didn't need me as much that day as she had the day before.
The second time I felt her growing fast was when she trooped off to first grade. Just the thought of this awed me. It was a totally selfish feeling: My child would not be mine alone to mold. I would have to vie for her, compete with peers and teachers when it came to influencing her thoughts, her decisions.
I always say we grew up together. Because I was a young mother, we learned a lot of our lessons at the same time.
We learned about college together. Andrea sat with me in the back of my literature classes and while I pored over Faulker and Hemingway, she concentrated on coloring inside the lines. I like to think that experience is one of the reasons going to college has never been a foreign idea to her.
We learned about loving humanity together. Once, I invited one of our corner alcoholics into the house in the middle of a snowstorm. Crippled, soaked and smelling of days of cheap wine, the man limped into my house and sat in a kitchen chair.
My half-hysterical daughter, who was 5 years old, screamed, "I can't believe you're doing this!" and ran into her bedroom and closed the door, not to be seen again until my husband came home from work.
The corner drunk was gone by then, but Andrea walked around me, staring with disbelief and disdain. The next day and the next and the next, the drunk was at my door again. My daughter wore a permanent smirk as I tried to explain to him, "No, I don't have any more bologna, but I'll call somebody who can find a place for you to stay and get you some help."
The man didn't want that kind of help, and Andrea and I both learned that although we can love the neediest humans, we have to know how we can help and how we can't.
More recently, we learned how to mourn. When my grandparents died people came to the house with pies and cakes, chicken and ham. We thought at first it was a foolish tradition, but we quickly learned that the tradition was wiser than we are.
When our bodies -- too weak from grief -- could not move but our stomachs growled with hunger, we reached for the pies and cakes, the chicken and ham, and food was never more fulfilling.
So months later when Andrea's friend Eric died, she called me at work to say she was baking a chocolate cake to take to his mother. She could not see my smile, but I am sure she felt it -- and we both understood.
There have been countless lessons. Perhaps some of the experiences are best forgotten, but I hope what they taught will remain with us forever. I still worry about whether or not they have been enough.
Just recently I was going to pick her up when the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull came on the radio. Oh goodness! the message rang out in my head. Had she ever heard that story?
I rushed to her school. (Surely any police officer who stopped me for speeding would understand: "I've got to let my daughter listen to Jonathan Livingston Seagull!")
"No," Andrea said, she had never heard the story. And on this sunny afternoon, when her mind had turned to visions of prom dresses, she could not understand why I cared about a story about a bird who loved to fly.
Mentally, I threw up my hands. This is it, I said to myself. I had given all I have to give to this child before she steps out into the world.
Let the remedy of time cool my worries. In fact, as graduation day draws nearer, I am even beginning to think more and more about the wonderfulness of being alone. I have told myself that I will finish my novel, that this will be the most prolific period of my writing life.
Anyway, poet Sonia Sanchez reminded me recently that graduation is not the end of motherhood. Sanchez, whose twin sons will leave home soon, recalled listening to a co-worker talk about her children.
She had forgotten the woman was a mother because the woman was in her 60s. But there she stood speaking of her grown children in the same manner as Sanchez herself spoke of her teenaged sons.
For the first time, Sanchez said, it hit her that motherhood is forever, "that you are as much a mother when you are 20 as when you are 30 or 40 or 50."
Today, I find that both frightening and comforting.