“It’s sort of like having a little taste of war, here,” my son says on the way to the airport. “Just the pressure, of everything, on everyone.”
I know what he means; I have had these thoughts too, how all the citizens of this ball of earth are united now in our sufferings and the squeeze of the moment, the realization that our troubles are not passing blips or anomalies, even if we disagree on what brought us here or how to right things.
It’s 5:00 in the morning at the end of August, still dark, with just a bit of mist outside. The San Diego weather is off this summer, like so much else that doesn’t feel quite right. The freeways are strangely quiet. I’m taking my son to the plane that will steal him away. Miraculous air travel, even during the pandemic. Minutes after takeoff he will be an almost unfathomable distance away. No watching him slowly disappear over the horizon.
I won’t see him again until his winter break. I know that I will cry on the way home.
We’ve been awake for an hour, and we spent 15 minutes of that hour looking for his vaccination card. When we’d emptied his two big suitcases, we found he had indeed packed it, just in an unconventional place. We finally managed to get everything back into the bags and zipped them, putting some muscle in it.
“I’m an adult now,” he says, rattled, “and everything just feels like a test that I’m failing.” His dad and I assure him that he’s not failing, that he doesn’t have to try to be perfect, that we all struggle with the details of this life. He’s not buying it really. But we regain our cool, and he says goodbye to his brother and dad before hefting his belongings into the van. I feel privileged to be the one to take him to the airport.
We talk all the way there. The two of us can talk for hours. Now that he’s leaving, I am sorry I didn’t suggest more one-on-one time with him during the summer. I vow to myself that we will set up a weekly time to talk.
Last year, his first year, I was determined not to hover, to let him take the lead, and he was determined to handle it all on his own. Now we are in the meat of it, his second year.
I am determined to be more available, and he is more open about how hard this transition to adulthood is, how far from home he feels, how anxious he is about what the year ahead holds.
I’m grateful for the long freight train that blocks our final approach to the airport. The lights flash and the barriers come down just as we near them. Five extra, precious minutes. It’s not that I have anything in particular to say, anything I haven’t already repeated. I just want to look at his face: the crinkles around his eyes, his longish curly blond-brown hair, his full lips.
I try not to think about the four months ahead, about the things he won’t tell me, the heartbreaks and worries he won’t want to share, and my own impotence to carry any of the real load now. The work of becoming a man is his to do.
More than that, I feel the tenuousness of our physical connection, especially now, in this year of awful and encroaching developments. Other departures, even his first-year dropoff at college, did not feel so uncertain. Despite the pandemic, we were full of hopeful anticipation. The instability feels bigger and less defined, now, like anything could happen. I plan to pick him up right here again in December, but what if? I don’t even have an end to that thought—the specific what-if multiplies to many possibilities, all of them awful.
He doesn’t belong to me and I have to let him go, I remind myself.
Someday, at least on this ball of dust, we will be separated, one above ground, one—hopefully me—below. The love will remain, of course. It always will. I wonder if other parents sending their kids off to college feel these same sensations of ambivalence about the future as they say goodbye this year.
I pull slowly to the curb and help him unload his suitcases. We speculate over whether the large one will exceed the 50-pound limit. We hug four different times, reluctant to complete this ritual. Even we, who can talk for hours, have now run out of words. He starts his journey. I watch him walk only partway to the terminal door. His stride is strong, his back straight. It hurts to watch, so I release the brake and pull away. I steer the car away from him, toward home, and let the tears come.