“Remote Control Mama” by Becca Birkin

You know who you are. You’re the one tucking Aunt Cecelia’s legacy into your purse. And you know what you should want. After all, you were your daughter’s sole audience on that Hawaiian hotel balcony when she announced her choice to serve a mission. Your memory rewinds to that morning. As the rising sun flung its rays in a beacon banner of colors, you combined crying and laughter into one joyous sound. That was the moment you first considered using Aunt Cecelia’s remote control. Cecelia’s gift, however, has rules. That day was much too shiny to qualify.

It wasn’t only the sunrise that filled that morning with light, but the glow within your daughter. Again and again, you remind yourself that it is a privilege to share this cherished child. Someone somewhere needs her indomitable, effervescent hope and love of God. So on this momentous day, your phone is full of congratulations. She’s doing such a great thing. Isn’t it wonderful? they ask. Of course it is wonderful. Of course you know that.

And yet…

The grumble of your car tires echoes through the parking lot of the Provo Missionary Training Center, squealing around each corner like someone turned the volume up on life. The huge parking structure looks empty. Your purse, on the other hand, is stuffed. Beyond the usual things, like your daughter’s favorite brand of protein bar, and the unusual—namely that packet of sugar snap pea seeds you keep forgetting to plant—you’ve added items specific to this MTC drop-off day.

First in your purse is that giant-size chocolate bar. Even the distracting haze of overwhelming feelings can’t keep you from noticing the irony of the blue words on the package. They say, “Sharing Size.” You’re not sharing.

Eating that chocolate will be the first of many things you’ll do alone, a contrast to these last weeks of having your daughter home with you. You’ve shared shopping trips, family visits, and other last-minute, last-chance items: her first temple trip, a pearl of a day bright enough to light the whole month. Vending machine cupcakes. Mother-daughter yoga. The hike when you got lost—she had to get back to mission prep class, but you wouldn’t have minded staying lost for hours. Again you considered using Aunt Cecelia’s remote, but only briefly. You knew it wasn’t right. This family legacy, passed from woman to woman, was too important to waste on a dusty trail. It could be used only once, only for a moment. And even if you were able to use it more than once, you’d never do that in a way that might hurt your daughter. That short moment could have made her late for the class she loved, and she hates being late. So you took photos and a found a shortcut back. The remote stayed unused in your backpack.

During this month, you’ve been eager, greedy for each crumb of her time in a way too similar to how she used to beg for yours. When you went to that workshop across the country, she sent you sad-faced emojis every night. The day you came home, you hadn’t even parked the car before she ran into the garage to greet you.

Now you are in a different garage. This time, she is ready to rush off toward new MTC friends and mission experiences.

If your mind is floating through some strange, cloudy space, that’s only understandable. Good thing your purse is packed.

The next item in your bag is tissues. Your daughter took time out from organizing her suitcase to make sure you remembered a full tissue pack. This, the latest of her many kind actions, caused you to rip open that neat plastic rectangle and use up half the pack before it ever reached your purse. Just when she’s become the sweetest friend, she leaves. The timing almost makes you reach for that remote.

This morning, your daughter saw Cecelia’s gift next to the tissue pack. She said, “Oh, Mom, you must be really stressed. You put that in your purse instead of your phone.” She was too busy hauling out her pink suitcase, neatly stuffed with its capsule wardrobe, to hear your answer. You couldn’t have told her about it anyway. The gift is something you will tell her about on another day. Just as Aunt Cecelia advised you, you’ll tell her to save it for the moment when she needs it most.

In between weighing suitcases and this last stop at the MTC, you pause for a farewell lunch. You swallow a few tears with your soup, share a cupcake, and laugh as you buy two more to add to your post-drop-off chocolate arsenal. A sign above the table reads, “Home is the best place of all.” When you read those words, the frosting in your mouth goes tasteless. Without those long kitchen conversations, Sunday cookie-making, and goodnight hugs, how can home still be the best place?

The question sends your mind on fast-forward to the house where you’ll soon return. To the hallway with the framed child’s art that proclaims, “Home is wherever Mom is.” If in coming days you search through hallways and rooms but can’t find home, no one will blame you. You’ll pick up the balled sock and pack up the salt-and-vinegar chips only your daughter eats. You might even eat a few and find the salt tang appropriate. Eventually, you’ll even plant those pea seeds. As you do, you’ll tell yourself how each seed must struggle through dirt to reach the light.

But you aren’t there yet. Rewind back to this moment. You’re still in your car, still making turns that send you deeper into the MTC parking lot. Your daughter is still beside you. You still have a few moments with her, scattered gems of seconds you long to gather and hold tight. For now, even the inside of a car feels like home.

With true MTC efficiency, mature women and men stand sentinel at every vital turn, directing you onward toward your assigned drop-off point. When you try to thank them, your swallowed tears are pebbles for your voice to stumble on, but it isn’t over yet. There’s still that one last hug.

Weeks ago, another missionary mom sent you her cherished last-hug photo. It’s the freeze-frame, frozen-time image of a clinging mother and daughter embrace, a daughter’s chin pressed tight to a mother’s shoulder. Your mind creates a similar wished-for image of how your own hug will go. You let go first, she’ll say. No, you, you’ll answer. That’s the embrace you wait for, a drawn-out hug full of enough love to last for the next 17.2 months.

You’ve reached the depths of the parking garage. Here another sister sentry, this one barely older than your daughter, motions for you to stop the car. Here? It can’t be here. This is the middle of the aisle. Shouldn’t I at least pull into a parking spot?

This is fine, she tells you.

Car idling, headlights burning red against your skirt, the time for goodbye plays out too fast. Before you can help them, your daughter and her new guide unload both suitcases. The luggage stands beside her, wheels poised and ready to roll on. You ask for one last photo, but no one is sure if you’re even allowed to take pictures now, so you take one in a half-guilty, too-fast rush. Then it’s time. This is it, the last hug. You reach for that fortifying, foundation-securing embrace. Your daughter, like time, can’t hold still. She is distracted, eager for new friends and experiences. Her hug is sincere. It is also much, much too brief. Then, before you can say all you want to say, or anything that sounds close to enough, it is over. Over much too fast.

Your daughter rolls her suitcases away from you. Like the shining streak of ceiling lights above her, she is the sole bright thing in all this cavernous cement-gray dim. Your daughter, her enthusiasm and smile as bright as her yellow dress, is ready.

You are not.

You have faith.

You taught her to love the gospel.

You also know love has a price tag of pain. Without her light beside you, you will be left blinking and stumbling through an underground tunnel.

In time you’ll learn to reach upward and find new light. But like those peas you need to plant, reaching for sunlight means you’ll have to push yourself through some heavy dirt.

You’ll do it.

Not yet, though. Not without one good hug.

Maybe you aren’t ready, but you are prepared. You take Aunt Cecelia’s remote control out of your purse. You point it toward your daughter.

And press pause.