That our boys have been the center of our lives, since the day we learned we were to become parents, is a well-known fact among our family and friends. For days following our return to a sonless house, we received numerous phone calls and texts to check on our condition. One neighbor brought a plate of freshly baked baklava. Another brought plants for my friendship garden. The outpouring of caring and concern has been heartwarming and prompted me to put pen to paper, (well actually, fingers to keyboard, but pen to paper sounds so much more literary), to give an honest account to those who have thoughtfully inquired as to how we are doing. This is the story behind the, “We’re fine.”
Knowing our younger son was going to leave home was a very different factuality from having him actually leave. We were fully aware that he was going to college. Last year was a flurry of writing essays, completing financial aid forms, submitting applications, and waiting for acceptance letters. The final decision was a huge relief and cause for celebration.
We took him to freshmen orientation. We attended parent informational meetings and mock classes. We toured dorm rooms and ate lunch in the cafeteria. He had a student ID made and picked up his course schedule. Throughout the day’s activities, I discreetly observed him. Witnessing his decisions, the manner in which he conducted himself, the way he interacted with and treated others, filled me with a satisfying sense of reassurance and validation. He was ready.
When Joseph invited me to go shopping for college, I jumped at the chance to accompany him. Walking alongside his graceful, 6’ 2” frame, I recalled those long-gone days, pushing him in the cart where my list was held tightly in his pint-sized fist, his gold-flecked, green eyes intent on my face as I named items and compared prices. It was gratifying to watch him looking for bargains, rather than popular trends; making selections based on recyclability and environmental friendliness; referring to his list and checking off items as they were added to the cart. A growing stack of neatly arranged college supplies occupied the corner of his room all summer. Of course he was moving out.
Throughout the summer, I took advantage of every opportunity to be with him and do things he enjoyed. We prepared his favorite meals. Vacationed on our favorite beach. Rewatched favorite TV shows and movies. All the while, my husband and I secretly collected items for a care basket to be left in his dorm room to be discovered after our departure. There was no use pretending. He was leaving home.
The few days before his departure, he went through the house looking in closets, searching shelves, rifling through drawers, deciding what to take and what to leave behind. Hopefully, he collected an abundance of pleasant memories as he wandered from room to room in this house where he’s spent a lifetime. Memories to sustain him, to remind him who he is, where he comes from, and how he is loved.
The eve of his assigned move-in day arrived. I sat on his bed keeping him company while he sorted and packed his belongings. Some of the things he chose to take surprised and moved me – several plush sea creatures, a little pocket knife keychain his brother gave him, his grandfather’s old worn cowboy hat. When he noticed the look on my face, he said, “Well, I want to make it feel like home.” He seemed to be putting a bit of each of us in his pocket to carry along with him. And we will be. With him. Always.
Filled to capacity with his plunder, the car was further laden with ambivalent anticipation during that early morning drive to campus. In spite of our attempts to create a cheerful atmosphere of normalcy, there was a lingering sensation that something momentous was afoot. Flashbacks to a comparable trip taken ten years previously, while providing some insight into what lay ahead, failed to diminish the magnitude of the current reality. Once again, we were traveling toward an inevitability that would leave each of us changed forever.
When we pulled up to the dorm, a host of friendly volunteers descended upon the car rendering the frantic unloading a jovial affair. Standing like islands in the midst of a sea of overflowing boxes, baskets, and bags, there was a moment of mild panic. How would all of this stuff ever fit in this little area? Putting his organizational skills and artistic eye to work, we went from ‘where do we start’ to ‘all done’ in record time. The final result was a space reminiscent of the one he occupies at home – a reflection of his combined passions for marine biology and the arts, a blend of mementos from the past and reminders of the present.
The remaining hours passed in somewhat of a blur. One minute we were companionably arranging his room and the next we were standing in the parking lot awkwardly avoiding the obvious. It was time to say goodbye. For weeks I’d been planning all the things I wanted to say at this moment. But all I could manage as we hugged, gazing up into his sparkling eyes was, “I’m honored to be your mother. I love you,” and sealed the sentiment with a kiss. As we pulled away, he stood there waving before turning to go back to the dorm. I watched him recede in the rearview mirror. When he heard the familiar beep, beep, beep (we love you), he turned and smiled raising his hand one last time before disappearing from view.
Suddenly all those things I’d intended to tell him came rushing back. Be good. Be mindful of your choices. Be both cautious and courageous. Seek the company of those who encourage you to be your best. Do the same for them. Avoid those who delight in your adversity or the misfortune of others. Beware of those who degrade and would destroy that which they do not have, just to prevent others from having it. Be a blessing to others. Look for the good in them. Treat them the way you want to be treated. Work hard. Use your time wisely. Ask for help if you need it. Aim for excellence. Enjoy yourself. You have a healthy conscience. Listen to it. Make yourself proud. Choose to be happy. Then I realized, he’s heard those messages all his life. Now it’s time for me to have confidence that he was listening.
I enjoyed imagining him finding the care basket we’d left in his room. Tucked inside was a message saying, “…what an emotional roller coaster it is to start something new. Take a deep breath, stand tall, and just keep moving forward. You are on your way to doing even more amazing things and becoming a more complete version of yourself. Enjoy the process!”
The return trip seemed to take twice as long. My husband and I attempted to lighten the solemn mood by commenting on trivial matters – the weather, traffic, gas prices – but our efforts were strained. Distracting ourselves from the conspicuous vacancy in the back seat made it possible to keep our emotions in check. Struggling to maintain our composure became more challenging when we finally arrived home.
Never before had we entered that house quite so alone. The silence was deafening. The sound of our entry magnified by the emptiness. For over twenty-eight years our lives had been filled with the noise, blessed noise of two growing boys. There was never time to imagine life when our sons would no longer be with us.
The Joseph-sized void was palpable, accentuated by his signature touch evident everywhere as we moved from room to room. The power-washed, meticulously organized garage. His clean, neatly arranged room. Pictures, artwork, seashells, music still open on the piano. Reminders of one of the two greatest gifts resulting from our coming together. From prior experience, we know the gnawing ache will eventually mellow, but never disappear entirely. For now it is fresh, raw, genuine. The person who wrote, “To become a parent is to choose to have your heart walking around outside your body,” comes closest to describing the hollowness, the actual physical sensation associated with discovering that those you’ve grown accustomed to seeing every day are no longer where you expect them to be. No other absence compares with it. No other presence fills it.
We busied ourselves, seeking solace in the performance of mundane tasks. Sensing the need for some time to privately examine the plethora of paradoxical emotions that have been accumulating for months, we each engaged in our preferred tension-relieving activity. Jerry went for a bike ride while I rearranged furniture.
Alone with my emptiness, I was finally able to let the tears flow freely, uninhibited, unconcerned with how they might affect anyone else. I was not crying out of some deep, unfulfilled longing or regret. The tears came as a release of the intense, complicated mixture of grief and joy. Grief for the loss of the familiar, the loss of a clear sense of purpose and lack of direction, the uncertainty of how to proceed. Joy for all that has been accomplished, all there is to anticipate, and all there is still to do. Suddenly, I recalled my advice to Joseph, ““…what an emotional roller coaster it is to start something new. Take a deep breath, stand tall, and just keep moving forward. You are on your way to doing even more amazing things and becoming a more complete version of yourself. Enjoy the process!” Little did I know, at the time of its writing, how it would apply to me as well as him.
Once the tears subsided, I felt cleansed, invigorated, and surprisingly strong. When my husband returned, I could see in his eyes that he’d had a similar experience. We embraced one another, grateful to be together in our loneliness.
The irony of our current situation is not lost on us. We planned, educated ourselves, and made ready for their arrivals as well as their departures. And yet, while our efforts were invaluable, on each occasion, we found ourselves inadequately prepared. The launching of our final fledgling has been a stark reminder that although we signed up to be their parents forever, they never agreed to remain children.
Once again we are faced with adjusting our roles in order to become the parents they need and, hopefully, want. Like any transition, this will not happen overnight. It’s been delightful to rediscover that being married to my best friend sure makes it easier. Fortunately, he concurs. There is nothing so simple, yet so hard, but so wondrous as love.