Yet day by day, as my son grew, our connection somehow became elastic enough to accommodate his need to establish himself as separate from me: At 3, he suggested a playdate at his best friend Nicolette's house. Really? He wanted me to leave him there alone? "Yep," he said, "pick me up later." At 6, he wanted to join an after-school program; at 9, to go to sleepaway camp; at 12, to spend the weekend at a friend's in the country; at 17, to go to school in Minnesota; at 19, to study in Japan.

The summer before he left, I couldn't get enough of him; I took every opportunity to be home when he was. One day I asked him if he agreed that the closer a child is to his parents, the farther away he has to go to become independent of them. "I don't know," he said, "maybe." Is that why he chose to go to Japan? "Oh no," he said. Then: "Maybe." The day he left for Kyoto, I felt as queasy as the first time he walked to school alone. Only he was no longer a small, slender shoot, bearing the heavy fruit of his backpack, overripe with books—he was tall and strapping, firmly supporting the weight of his decision to leave everything familiar for eight months of the unknown. "We're doing this quickly, like taking off a Band-Aid," he said at the airport when it was time to say goodbye. He hugged me and my husband tightly, turned around and walked to the plane. I waited till we got to the parking lot and then cried—I cried in short bursts for weeks. I kept thinking, "The sweetest part of my life is over. How can I stand it? What will take its place?"

About halfway through his stay, we visited him. He met us at the airport. He was easy to spot, a couple of heads taller than everyone else in the crowd. "Just follow me," he said, as he led us through the maze of people, passageways and ticket booths to our train. "Follow me," he said, as he bought our tickets, as he helped us find our room at the hotel. When he was on his own, he rode around Kyoto like the Japanese, on a bicycle. The bike was a little small for him—as was almost everything else—which made him seem bigger than when he'd left home. Or maybe he was bigger; I wasn't sure. His host family obviously adored him. Though I couldn't understand their conversations, the mutual kindness and respect they shared with my son needed no translation. For two weeks, my husband and I followed him like baby ducklings. And by the time he put us on the train to Osaka for our flight home, I understood that the sweetest part of my life was not over but that it was expanding, the way the connection between my child and me has always been expanding, to include experience and satisfaction and joy I could never have imagined. I wish I could love everyone in my life the way I love my son: cleanly, without jealousy or neediness; wanting for him happiness, success, strength and many more people who love him as I do.

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