As I watch other parents sending their teenagers off to college, I remember the agonizing lump in my throat when we were doing the same one year ago. I wish I knew then what I know now.
As we prepared to drive the 600-plus miles to take our oldest child to school, I wondered who thought this was such a good idea? My husband was the culprit, luring our son to a Utah Jazz game in February 2020 to show our son how fun it would be to live in Salt Lake City. With alternating annoyance at my husband and that darn lump that threatened to escape into sobs at any moment, I found strength the morning we left when I saw my son saying goodbye to his siblings and our dog.
I fought the urge to turn the car around — there was no way I was going to leave him in another state, let alone a big city — during that long drive. At the thought of him living on our couch his whole life, I realized my sadness stemmed from thinking that this chapter, my favorite chapter so far as a family of six, was over. “Eighteen years sure went fast,” I said to my husband when my son ran into a rest stop.
“It didn’t go that fast,” he deadpanned.
When we arrived and our son left us in the car to get a COVID-19 test, my anguish exploded. I ugly cried while my husband was left speechless, patting my back as I sobbed. As my son walked back to the car 20 minutes later, his usually confident, outgoing self looked uneasy. “This is about him,” I chided myself, my strength once again, miraculously, taking hold.
We didn’t stay long, which was a good decision for all of us. As we set back for home that nagging heartache wouldn’t leave me alone. I posted pictures of my son’s “going to college” milestone and a friend with an older daughter offered advice that really helped: schedule a time to visit about six weeks out. It sounds simple, but it was huge. Knowing that parents’ weekend might be canceled because of COVID, I took charge and made our own plans to visit so we didn’t have to wait until Thanksgiving.
Those first days back at home I slept in my new college T-shirt, which we’d bought at the student store together, another great move I didn’t know would help so much. It was the second time I realized how powerful physical items can be when we’re separated from a loved one. The first time was the peace I felt once I started to wear my mom’s ring after she died.
Knowing when I would see my boy next and wearing that shirt helped, but I still felt sad that he didn’t need me anymore.
At a college care package get together (a dozen of my son’s 2020 Oak Ridge classmates were also freshmen at the same college) you could tell who the first-timers were — we were the forlorn ones, sharing stories of our long drives home.
An experienced mom sat there, calm and happy. “Oh, college is great,” she said. “Your kids go away and realize how good they had it and they come home more appreciative.”
She was right. After visiting him the first time, the sting faded. It was worth it to have him live so far to see him happy in his new environment. He still calls me, but now it’s for cooking questions and other advice that he seems to listen to even more than before. He says thank you more than ever now too and he is even (shhh) nicer to his siblings.
And now, just as I’m getting used to one son being away at college, son No. 2 is getting ready to send out his applications. Here we go again …