the truth around the bend
it’s a rite of spring around here, the junior year of high school spring-break college tour. i’ve not been before. last time round, i stayed home with a kid just warming up his third-grade baseball cleats, a kid still learning how to cobble words into sentences. the one i stayed home with was all of eight. his big brother set sail to the eastern seaboard with his papa. they’re the ones who ambled college quads, queued up for “information sessions,” accumulated a backpack full of shiny college folders. my job was to take the nightly calls, to scribble down whatever were the reports of the day. which campus felt blah. which cafeteria oozed soft-serve ice cream.
this time, the little ball player is sixteen. and he’s the one starting to wrap his brain around this idea of packing up a box or six, and heading off to college. i’m tagging along because, well, there’s no one here for me to stay home with, and b.) i really need to wrap my brain around this going-off-to-college thing.
i can’t quite imagine a house without all the clatter. what would mornings be if not for the daily five-alarm drill of running late, of screeching out the alley and down the lanes, trying to reach the schoolhouse curb just before the bell rings?
there’ve been a few weekends of late when the kid was off debating, so his papa and i tried it on for size — his absence, that is. we both shuffled past his bedroom door in the early morning, and sighed in not-a-pretty-way at the sight of his empty bed, the quilt pulled taut, without the lump beneath. we sat down to dinner, just the two of us. fell asleep without awaiting the sound of the click from the front door, and then the clomp up the stairs, and the squeak of the bedroom door as it whined its way closed.
while the kid was off loving the college scene — especially the weekend in berkeley, california, where he reports the sidewalks teem with weed-y not-woodsy scent, and construction workers think nothing of lighting up and passing round their pleasure (who knew he knew the telltale, um, aroma?!) — his papa and i were home deciding we weren’t quite ready for the next jolt on the american family trajectory: the empty nest.
which is, perhaps, the certainest reason i need to pack my bags, and give myself a bracing dose of this college-coming reality.
because i’m married to a fellow who oughta be a college counselor on the side, a fellow who takes to heart the search for just the right college for just the right kid, we’ve got (er, he’s got) the whole week plotted out. there’s a stop a day, in a big wide circle that starts and ends in boston. we’re looking big and little and in-between. and of course we’re test-driving every college cafeteria, snooping out the soft-serve zones.
once upon a time, in the world where i grew up, applying to college meant filling out two forms — one, a catholic university; the other, the big state school — seeing which one wrote back first. that’s the one you went to. and then you packed the wood-paneled wagon, motored up the highway, and your parents dropped you off. maybe, helped slap sheets round the single slab of mattress, stuffed some clothes in the closet, and then they were off. congratulations, you’d arrived at college.
back then there were three brothers still home behind me, so my absence must have barely garnered notice. for a while, i’m guessing, they forgot to not set my place at the table, maybe marveled at how uncluttered was the chair in my bedroom. sunday nights, some time after rates went down at 5, we must have dialed (yes, rotary dialed), caught up, bid goodbye for yet another week.
in the house where i grew up i was one of five, and thus my presence was proportionally diluted. around here, with eight years in between, i’ve always said we’ve pretty much raised two only kids. and each time we’ve plunged in deep. thus, we’ve been at this — deeply — for nearly a quarter century. we had barely any married months before i first found out i was “with child,” in the quaint vernacular of another time. and while it would be almost two years of heartbreak and holding our breath before we wrapped our arms around Sweet Boy No. 1, we’ve pretty much been a marriage with offspring. how oh how to be a house with empty bedrooms, half-filled fridge, and car growing cobwebs in the garage?
the college tour provides the chance to wrap my head — and my heart — round those stirring questions. i’ll stand back and watch that kid lope across a quad, or climb some stairs and shove open the door as if he’s done it a hundred times before. i’ll see him poke his head into the confines of some cleaned-up dorm room (i’m pretty sure they pay kids to sign up as show-off rooms, the ones they let prospective parents stick their noses into). i’ll try to imagine him, in just a year and a half, unpacking his boxes, learning how to use a key card, registering for classes, and texting home in the lulls of the night or week.
there’s a long way to go before i find — deep inside — what it takes to let go, wipe a thousand tears, and drive home, aching all the way. but there’ve been plenty of chapters in this parenthood adventure that i’d never have guessed i’d muddle through. there’ve been ICUs, and awful phone calls, there’ve been words from teachers, and taunting in the school yard. and each time, in time, i found what i needed. i climbed in the ambulance, i looked the teacher in the eye, i even called the mother of the bully. if i could do all that, i think i’ll find some way to drop off my kid at college. the one where he will thrive. so help us God.
how have you braced yourself for passages you knew would tax your heart and soul?
this morning in particular my heart is full for a host of people i love suffering through too many heartaches. my beloved aunt nancy will sit alone this weekend in the front pew of her late husband’s funeral mass in cincinnati’s great cathedral, my beloved cousins sit beside the ICU bed of their son, a pediatric nurse, who caught some horrid virus that’s gripped his heart, and my beloved nearby friend keeps vigil for her child who’s going through a few rings of hell. sending love to each one of you, and all the rest besides.
Best wishes for the college tour. Our only made it all the way to Berkeley, a place we now visit every few months to see he and his wife and my 2 year-old granddaughter. I missed him desperately that first year away. E-mail saved me. A couple of years ago, he mentioned on the phone that he’d scrolled through some old e-mails. “Mom, I’d forgotten that you wrote to me every night that first year,” he said. “It was great going through those old e-mails.” So continuing writing, Barb. It really helps.
ohhh, what a sweet sweet story. love that he saved your emails, love that he took note of the frequency. i guess we just keep writing, and the bond holds in new forms. love that california is your destination. if only we could move it a few miles east, a lot of miles east…..
Barbara, you did it again in this story.. I have to share this for my sister who is going through this as her last child will be heading off to the University of Iowa to play Soccer with the Women’s Soccer Team while getting her degree. Their first child will be finishing up her second degree in elementary education, as well, who also played soccer with the Women’s team. And, in the same family, my nephew will be graduating from the University of Iowa as well with a Business degree.
Hope you are doing well, I always enjoy reading your stories and somewhere in that story I always relate to something or somebody I know. Bless you and your heart 🙂 ❤
bless YOU and your heart, dear linda! thank you for wandering by this old chair — or is it a table? anyway, sounds like a mighty crop of soccer players in iowa! i love knowing there’s a whole army of mothers linked arm-in-arm as we send off the ones who will leave our nest, um, a bit less noisy and cluttered…..
Yes. Remember dropping off each one. Very different schools, for very different children. Sometimes I wonder how they are siblings, they are so different. Each one with their special gifts and talents, finding their own way. And then we have to find our (new) way. And how to brace for the experience? Try not to borrow tomorrow’s worries. Try to not look too far ahead. One day … one breath at a time. No matter how you think it’s going to be, it may yet surprise you. Praying you all through the experience. And praying for all your loveys who are suffering. My goodness, so much suffering. Love to you and all here at the table. xoxo
wise words, wise friend. i sometimes wonder how they came from the same ovary (!!!!) but then i look at their hearts, and realize, oh yes, kindred soulmates. xoxoxoxoxo
much love to you, sweetheart.
And, please feel free to pass along any Boston wisdom … we hope to go this autumn …
oh, honey…..the list begins now…..i promise to tuck a list of favorites into your back pocket.xoxo
I would just suggest that the most loving thing is to begin encouraging and teaching students as freshmen in high school to grow in responsibility and independence…and as college approaches, discussing expectations about the best way to support them in ways that meet both of your needs. They will need space to grow – but that does not mean “grow away” from you! Believe that your relationship will change – and believe it can deepen and change for the better!
So reading this, an idea struck me: I am a college/career counselor and am also facilitating a grief support group at my church. I’m thinking that perhaps there is a need for combining the two into a “Moms of College Bound Students” support group. I have never heard of an offering like this. Anyone else?
wow! i love that you are a college/career counselor, and thus deeply versed in this terrain. i love your idea. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve heard versions of this conversation among mothers and fathers, as we all follow our own inner compass, at our own pace and capacity, and learn just how to stand back and watch our children test-flight, maybe flounder, and eventually soar (or some close approximation thereof!)….
Paula – great idea!
Dearest, I’m so very happy someone is considering New England as he’ll have 2 foster brothers, along with the real one, to check in on him. And the husbands should definitely have second careers in their favorite college counseling field, also. Working at a high school, I completely agree with Paula that the support group is a great idea. I’m always speaking with mothers about this transition. I do tell them, however, to give their kids more responsibility now in high school (make their own lunch, do their own laundry, don’t clean their room,etc.) as it will make their transition easier in college. (Maybe not the mother!) Personally, I found having a big dog and a job was the best way to counter an empty house 🙂
i’m ALLLL for big fluffy dog. now if i could get the other parent on board with that we might get somewhere. that will be the campaign i begin as i tape up the last of the boxes come august 2019……
A big fluffy dog would definitely help with the transition. Or maybe a sweet new Hi-Cat-Bye-Cat. The thing that has helped me the most with goodbyes is being able to stay in close touch with my darlings by texting and FaceTiming.
Wishing you a beautiful tour of colleges and lots of happy family time as well! Much love~ xoxo
Hello, dear sweet A,
Writing from a lovely hotel in Massachusetts. Our first full day of tours was interrupted by a big patch of ice that sent T’s papa flying with a thud. We spent the morning in the Mt.Auburn ER, where a very dislocated shoulder was “relocated,” (thank goodness for morphine, says the patient), and I am now the driver (and the shirt buttoner, and the meat cutter) for the rest of the trip. All in all, we’re relieved as I feared surgery before the X-rays were underway. We’ve recovered and are carrying on. T is a fabulous medical assistant, and comedian in chief. Onward!!!
Oh, my goodness! Your poor, poor sweetheart! I’m grateful no surgery was needed, but oh dear, I wince at the thought of how much that had to have hurt… Sending love, love, love, and my best wishes for a rapid return to a pain-free shoulder. Be safe, dear ones! Hugs and more hugs…