I impress myself with my calmness, my consistent cheer. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I am Type A all the way, but on the day that I move my youngest child into college, I don’t shed a single tear. Not that I’d not cried on that campus before.
After proofing countless essays, offering up my credit card for a year’s worth of wine worth of application fees, listening in on skyped interviews, trips to schools across the country, countless admissions meetings and receptions, and multiple miles walked on campus tours, I was exhausted with the wonder of what was next for my child.
When my son finished a meeting with a professor at a local University just two days before the May 1 decision deadline and he came out of that discussion and said, “Let’s go to the student store.” I took a deep breath. This nearly year-long journey - heck this 18 year-long journey - had hit a pivotal point. I couldn’t help but smile at my suddenly seemingly even taller son as he confidently strode across the brick walkway, resolute in his decision.
As we combed the Student Store for car stickers, sweatshirts, mugs, and t-shirts for the whole family, the relief on his face was palpable. We stood in line to pay and when it was our turn, as we placed our pile on the counter, tears started streaming uncontrollably down my face. My son looked at me and laughed, “Seriously mom?”
But I couldn’t help it. The pressure of deadlines, the anxiety of rejection letters, the hope of scholarships, it all affected me, as did the energy it took to display confidence through disappointment and faith that it would all work out. In the end it did. But the whole thing was exhausting. My tears were of joy and relief. At that moment I wasn’t thinking about the goodbye.
But here we are, a couple months later, moving him into a room jammed with bunk-beds. We bring far less décor than seemed necessary to his sister. “Keep it simple mom,” he kept reminding me, “Just buy me a comforter and a big box of Goldfish crackers and I’ll be fine.”
Of course we need a little more than that, but after I Clorox-wipe every surface, fluff up the pillows on his tiny bed, stock the mini-fridge and we tape the LED color-changing lights inside the rails of his bottom bunk, he walks me back to the car. He talks about what a great mom I am. He drapes his arm over my shoulder and says I’ve raised him well and that is why he is so prepared for this next chapter. The kid says everything anyone could ever dream their teenage boy might say. And I realize, he has been EXPECTING ME TO CRY. I’ve been too calm and he is actually TRYING to elicit emotion from me, as if my sadness would be a sign of love, or maternal normalcy. But I find it impossible to feel sad when this child is simply percolating with positivity and possibility.
“Mom,” he says, “I thought you’d be more emotional.”
“Well, I’m feeling pretty good about all this,” I reply, “My job is done. Fait accompli.”
“What do you mean you’re done?” he pulls away to get a good look at my face.
We joke about how he won’t be able to reach me because I’ll be on an island drinking Mai Tais by next week. As we hug goodbye in the stuffy parking garage, I decide it isn’t a good place for a memorable farewell. I offer to drive him back to his dorm, but when we get there, cars are lined up, blocking the street, still unloading suitcases and storage bins past 10pm on a Thursday.
“Just drive me up the hill and drop me off by the tennis court,” he suggests. So I do, and we hug goodbye at a stop sign. He promises to call me as soon as he gets back to his room. It should be about a five-minute walk. My last image of my son that night was of him hanging from a street sign, Gene Kelly-style, waving goodbye under a streetlight. The only streetlight.
I drive home. It takes just a half hour late at night when there is no Los Angeles traffic. It can take an hour-and-a-half at other times of day. When I get there I realize he hasn’t called. And I recall where I dropped him off. It wasn’t well lit. There were no people anywhere around him. It was a dark, rarely traversed alley. What was I thinking? I am not a good mother at all!
I decide to give him a little more time to call. I don’t want to hijack his independence within the very first hour. I’ll watch the evening news, then, if I haven’t heard back from him, I’ll call.
I keep picturing him smiling on that corner, alone. I realize I’ve not met his roommates. They’re not moving in for another day. I’d not met his RA or gotten the number of anyone else on his hall. There is no one I can call.
I’ve intentionally not connected with my children on the FIND MY FRIENDS app. I’ve witnessed too many other friends cyber-stalking their kids and struggling to wean themselves from the desire to know where their teens are at all times. In exchange, my children have promised to give me periodic updates. It has worked with his older sister, but I’m already fearful he will be different. I’m craving an app. But what would it even mean if his phone is in some place other than his dorm?
My mind goes down the rabbit hole of all sorts of dark possibilities. Watching the evening news doesn’t help. A body has been found in the desert. There’s been a random shooting in another part of town and suspects are on the loose. One more young person has succumbed to a vaping-related illness. When the newscast ends, my son still hasn’t checked in, so I call.
No answer. I wait ten minutes and I try again. Nothing. I’m really starting to panic, thinking about driving back to his school to look for him. What did my parents think when they didn’t hear from me for a week. Calls cost a lot back then. We had a weekly call time and sometimes I got busy and missed it. Did they just assume I was ok? Did I cause my own mother this kind of panicky, heart-palpitating stress?
I call again. No answer. I text. Nothing.
At 12:30am he calls. “Sorry mom,” he says casually, having no idea of my near meltdown, “I met a guy playing guitar so I grabbed mine and we had an impromptu jam session. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
He sounds so happy in his new home. I am so grateful that I can’t be mad.
I take a deep breath. I got another child moved out and moved in. My house is empty, but my heart is full. I sit down, and I cry.