Buried within the correspondence from politicians seeking donations and stores celebrating Labor Day sales, I spot an email from a friend and open it eagerly, hopeful for a distraction from my loneliness.

“Hey there,” begins the brief note. “Jack turns one in a couple of weeks and is almost walking. I can barely handle it. Are you OK with Russell starting college? xo Julie” 

It has been two weeks since I hugged Russell, watched him grow increasingly smaller in my rearview mirror as he stood outside his freshman dorm waving goodbye. My son is big and tall with just a bit of stubble on his chin, but he is also my baby, my toddler, my pre-teen, my boy. Russell is the second of my three sons, and although the tactical approach to college-start is easier than it was three years ago when I said goodbye to his brother Evan, it is no less painful. What’s different now is that I am without two boys instead of one, the home/away ratio forever shifted.

I read the email from Julie in our backyard, the one-time home to Russell’s sand shovels and dump trucks. What was once an ad hoc baseball diamond, mud bases, and a weedy infield, is now a pristine garden, the fruits of my newest hobby. I spent little time smelling the roses during the early years of parenting my boys. It was busy and exhausting. Yet, it is the excitement I remember, the beginningsI yearn to do it all over again. 

Today, my house is quiet. With just my husband and youngest son at home, the kitchen—once cramped, littered with toys, and years later, with big feet, as they stood by the fridge, always hungry—feels cavernous, the table, too large.

Although I once wished for blissful silence, now I miss the banter, the noise. 

Bathroom routines are no longer disrupted by bangs on the door. “Get out, I’m gonna be late!” Russell’s bed is neatly made, our little dog Otis nestled deep in his pillows. There are no books on his desk, no need to pick his sweatshirt off the floor. LEGOs, meticulously secured by his long-ago tiny fingers to resemble battleships and skyscrapers, stand dusty on Russell’s shelves, next to the Game of Thrones books he intended to read last summer. 

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Hanging from a hook on his wall are two baby-sized Nike sneakers. On a vacation in Florida, when the boys were still in single digits, his brothers picked out souvenir shirts, while 7-year-old Russell, always the planner, selected these shoes, as a future gift to his someday-son. “He’ll like them,” Russell smiled, as I stood in line, eager to purchase and get back to the beach.

Today, I cradle a sneaker in my palm, wish for the sound of thundering footsteps bouncing from room to room. 

Russell seemed to have been born walking. Barely older than a year, his boundless energy sent him on missions around the house as I sat on the couch, exhausted, baby brother DJ growing in my belly. “Whooohaaaa,” I heard little Russell pant from the top of the stairs as I hauled my weary body to the landing, just in time to be bombarded by the books he hurled from above. I watched his joy turn to disappointment as I admonished him. “Russell,” I said. “This is mischief. We don’t throw books.” 

He wept. Hoping to be applauded for his new mobility and creative use of literature, he was instead overcome with shame at my stern response. I took the steps two at a time to get to him, hold him, forgive him, sit together until the tears dried. 

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Becoming independent is risky business, and my middle son has loved testing every limit. Books were thrown, walls scribbled upon. One quiet afternoon, as DJ napped and Evan played, 4-year-old Russell ripped every truck picture out of his brother’s favorite storybook, burying the contraband deep in his pockets. His smile made me forgive him again and again, in a boyhood full of skirmishes, middle school ding-dong-ditches, unsanctioned late-night high school pool parties. 

Tales of mischief have become family legend, stories we’ll retell again when Russell’s home on college break, or at Thanksgiving, Christmas breakfast, or a lazy summer afternoon, sharing a meal at our table that, for a minute at least, won’t seem nearly as large.   

It wasn’t easy to say goodbye. My heart hurts. But I’m happy, too, and excited.

Because 18 years of knowing Russell and having Russell, laughing with him until my sides hurt and disciplining him when all I wanted was to hold him tight, well, that gives me great confidence in our future together. As a mom and a son and, also, as friends. 

He will come home. For holidays and summers, at first, and then eventually, maybe just for visits. Russell will burst through the front door as a man, but I will see my baby, my toddler, my pre-teen, my boy. After the hugs and the greetings, the excited chatter of what’s new and what’s not, we will simply be together, where we started.

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“Happy beginnings to you, Julie,” I write to my friend. “Thanks for reaching out. The college send-off was great and I am good. First steps are pretty amazing, right? Not just the shaky steps of Jack, but also Russell’s brave walk into the unknowns of college. Have an extra serving of cake for me.”

First steps are worth celebrating. I can’t wait for all that comes next.  

Postscript: What came next was a freshman year interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a spring break that lasted right through the summer. Together, my son and I have worried about sickness and have grown exasperated over an uncertain future. There have been fears over school cancellations and hopes for normalcy eventually returning. Although I’ve been blessed with five unplanned months of Russell, with long lazy days and deep conversations, I’m startled that it is already August. Right around the time Julie’s Jack turns two, Russell’s sophomore year will begin. College will be virtual, but the bond I share with my second son will continue in real-time. For that, I am forever thankful. 

Maribeth Darwin

Maribeth Darwin is a freelance writer from Melrose, MA and the happy mom to three almost grown boys. She has published essays in BrainChild, BrainTeen Magazine, Grown and Flown, Entropy, Cognoscenti, and K'In Literary Journal. You can see links to all of her published work at her website www.evolutionarywriting.net.