Two days before my first child left for college, I swallowed tears passing the chocolate milk in the grocery store. I did not need to buy it.
Every time I saw someone that summer, they would ask, “Are you ready”? Is he ready?” And the answers were always no and yes. I did not want to let go. I wanted to relive and hold on (one more Cubs game, one more of your favorite dinners) and teach any last-minute things I had forgotten over 18 years (laundry sorting? self-check-in at O’Hare?). But those were the small things.
In my heart, I worried about what I could not control.
What if he did not like school, would he be lonely, would he find his place and people, and really for me, what it would be like to not have him come back? At least, never in the same way.
Because leaving for school is the first big step in that whole next phase of your child coming and going and then going some more—the pattern ahead in God’s hands.
You get a glimpse of it right away, of course. The first time they roll, crawl, and take those first steps. You have their back as they go forward. The riding of the bike, the cruise down the water slide, the pumping of their little legs making the swing whoosh through the air. You are there as a hand holder, steadier, pusher, arms-open-in-waiting person who is watching them go but still has the comfort of being close by just in case.
Eventually, as their world broadens, you feel the pain of no longer being able to fix things immediately or as much.
Hearts break, friends betray, fly balls drop, media posts run cruel. What could be fixed with Band-Aids, gummy worms, and a second chance playdate is not so much. Stakes are higher, your capabilities still needed, but in different emotional ways that seem murkier—their potential to help less clear. But you try, you are there, in the mix, and your child knows that . . . at least I hoped so even if it seemed inadequate sometimes.
On my first set of business cards, under “appointment, where, and date,” my son wrote, “me, here, and now.” It was profound. I kept thinking about that too this summer. How for anyone—child, parent, friend, spouse—this is the framework we have and the importance of honoring it. But of course, I have not always because I am human and a mom, and I fail.
And for some reason, my child leaving brought all this up.
The times I failed, the times I missed, the times I was there but maybe too much or in the wrong way.
I wanted to redo some things (Why did I argue so much about him quitting saxophone? Why did I finish grad school when he was nine months old? Why did we move from the neighborhood he loved to a place that was so difficult for him to find his way?). I guess the regrets were a way to reflect on my choices in the prime of motherhood, my relationship with my son, and how fast our time goes. Especially that. Someone check the clock! But the clock was right.
And when I asked my friend, “Where did it all go? Where is that little guy naming every World War II plane, species of shark, and carrying his yellow blanket?” She said, “He’s still there. He’s right in front of you.”
And indeed, he was.
I needed to catch up. I needed to integrate that nothing was gone, but it was different, in the best way, in the way that life moves and you go with it. Hits, misses—it’s all there, bringing you to a new moment you get to have.
A waiting duffel bag now holds an envelope with a note, a Dunkin’ card, and a snip of a yellow blanket. The fighter jets retired, but the giant book of sea creatures remains by his bed. He will study their ocean home as he leaves his Midwestern one to be by the coast he has always loved.
On our last day, I was invited to sit in the summer sun. He put up the umbrella for me, just like his dad would do. It made me so happy and so sad. I would miss him. I would miss these moments of here and now, which will be further apart and more difficult to come by. But I was taught by him and an appointment card years ago to seize them when they arrive, and I hope he continues the same as he braves his new world.
He takes my heart, and I will always have his back.