In Fear of the Absent Kiss

by Kathleen Murphey 

I kiss my children, in greeting and in parting, at bedtime and at times in between. It is an expression of love and devotion. It is easy and natural. I’ve kissed them since the day each of them was born. The acts of holding, cuddling, kissing babies are normal and natural. Such actions and the feelings associated with them are hard-wired and help us sustain the species. Though there are some for whom babies offer no allure, how many others of us find the tiny features, the soft, satiny skin, and the baby scent irresistible?

The routine and ritual of the parent/child kiss become sacred—ties or pledges to the bond between them. To the parent, the kiss is a sign one is still needed, still loved, despite one’s many flaws in character and parenting. For the child, the kiss is an affirmation of unconditional love and a commitment to be there to support, to comfort, to guide, to love, and to kiss again. Though babies grow into children, and children into teenagers, and teenagers into adults, the parent/child kiss remains, and yet it changes too. One day a parting kiss from mom at the bus stop will be too public, too childish, too “uncool”—and the ritual and routine will be broken, absent—expressed in other ways and in private—until kissing the parent again in public is expected of the two adults, child and parent, who love and respect each other and who don’t see each other as much as they might like.

One day a parting kiss from mom 
at the bus stop will be 
too public, too childish, too “uncool”...

Because I have not felt the pain of the absent kiss, I hadn’t considered what that absence would feel like. Those separating moments between myself and my children have been most acutely felt with my youngest. Though I remember both the shock and relief I felt when my oldest ran into her classroom the first morning of pre-school without a backward glance, I remember that I cried when the youngest marched away from me into that same pre-school room, and I had the morning alone for the first time in seven years. I cried too at the dentist’s office when the youngest told me that she didn’t need me to come back with her and that she could go by herself at three years old. It just caught me by surprise. She had never gone back by herself before, and I wasn’t ready to be dismissed so easily.

So this morning I was both humbled and honored when my oldest child, a ten year old girl, waited patiently through a trivial conversation I was having with an instructional aid before school for us, she and I, to exchange our parting kiss. It struck me then that she could have just walked away and waved, but she waited. The kiss was important to her, and I realized just how important it was to me too, and now I live in fear of the absent kiss which will come, I know. In its place will be new routines and rituals, and I imagine a ballooning cell phone bill, but for now, I am not ready, and thankfully neither are they.

Kathleen Murphey is an English professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. Kathleen joined the Philadelphia Writing Project as a teacher consultant in 2008.