Last week I talked to a woman I know who's suffering from a mysterious malady. Her symptoms? Impaired thought processes and physical movements, red, swollen eyes, and a general malaise, exacerbated by fits of weeping over everyday items, e.g. packets of frozen peas in Safeway, a discarded basketball in the garage, headlines like "Pinochet To Be Extradited to Spain."

She's not psychotic or clinically depressed, nor is she a Spanish partisan. The diagnosis was simple: her son --- her oldest child -- has left for college in a distant state, and she has subsequently developed a severe case of Kid Withdrawal Syndrome (KWS). KWS is not contagious but can be debilitating; there are cases on record that have lasted four years. Despite ongoing research on the subject, there is no known treatment; if afflicted with KWS, you must be patient and let it run its course.

I thought that the following piece, which I wrote over a year ago, might help other parents who are plagued by this distressing condition.

Maternal Regrets

I’ve been crying on and off all week. I’m not going through menopause or experiencing any kind of a tragedy, but I am facing a gut-wrenching change: Melia, my firstborn, is graduating from high school. Eighteen years have somehow flown by, and our time together is nearly over. Soon she’ll be going away to college and piecing together her own life, and I will no longer be a large part of it.

The sadness has come upon me at unexpected times. Yesterday at the Marketplace, I saw a little girl about three years old demonstrating how fast she could run.

"Remember to stop before you get to the street," her mother warned, then added in a pleased voice, "Oh, aren’t you a fast runner!"

The child ran back and took her mother’s hand, smiling proudly, and I, watching from my car nearby, burst into tears.

I want my little one back. I want to have her come running back to me and gaze trustingly into my face, as if I hold all the wisdom of the universe. I want her to hold my hand and chatter about the important matters of the toddler world, Does God have a mouth? Will Sesame Street be on later? Can I have a strawberry ice cream cone?

Regrets? Yes, I have a few.. If I had it to do over again, I would leave the dishes in the sink and the laundry in piles and take Melia for a walk in the sunshine. I would point out stones with interesting shapes and help her keep a sharp lookout for the Siamese Cat and the Very Old Dog and count cactus plants as we walked. I would lie on the grass with her and show her how the moving clouds make pictures: Look, there’s a cow, like the one we saw when we took a ride with Daddy; I would read Ernie’s Big Mess twelve times in a row without complaining. I would hold her close and keep her safe always.

Sometimes my sadness is mixed with anger. The time has gone by too quickly. . . I didn’t have time. . .. Nobody warned me that she would grow up this fast! Actually, that last part isn’t true. Veteran moms did warn me, but I just didn’t listen to them. Why should I have? They were the ones who gave me bad advice, like You just have to let her cry or You have to put her on her stomach , or she’ll never learn to crawl. How was I supposed to know that they were right when they said, "Enjoy her while you can; she’ll grow up fast." ?

It’s a form of separation anxiety that I’m going through, I guess. I went through something similar almost eighteen years ago. During my pregnancy, I used to talk to my unborn child, and I wondered how it must feel to her when I jogged around the corner to catch the bus or what she heard when I walked through the middle of San Francisco on my way to work. One summer morning in 1980, I ran to get the telephone and thought, "I wonder what she hears?" Then it hit me: she hears exactly what I hear, because she’s in her crib in the next room. It was painful then, too: the sudden realization that she was no longer part of my body, that she had become a separate being.

Little Melia went through her own separation anxiety. Once, visiting English friends of ours, Mike and Gillian, volunteered to watch her while Kelly and I went out to dinner. They said afterward that some time after we had left, Melia looked up and asked, "Where’s Mommy?"

"Gone out," replied Mike.

Melia began to wail, but Gill intervened with a quick, "Never mind, then; she’ll be back. Come and listen to a story about Winnie-the-Pooh!" And the crisis passed, possibly because Eeyore sounds so much more authentic with an English accent.

In the next few months I know that I’m going to find myself bobbing around on some rough emotional seas. When my tall, beautiful daughter walks up the aisle in cap and gown to accept her diploma, when we have to leave her at her college dorm in September, when I see her piano gathering dust or turn around to tell her a joke and realize she’s not here anymore, I will undoubtedly be a mess. What I need, I think, is for someone to take me in hand, offer me a sweet, strong cup of tea, and say to me in a brisk English voice, Never mind, then; she’ll be back.

                                                            -- Laverne Mau Dicker 1999

(Laverne Dicker can be reached at leilani@sonic.net)