I guess I expected it would be easier this time. After all, it was my second child going to college, right? I had already explored the push and pull of wanting them to start their lives, but also longing for them to stay close that is the hallmark of parenting. Surely I’d be fine at drop off.
Well, a couple of weeks ago I found myself on a sidewalk across from my daughter’s dorm unsuccessfully fighting back tears as I watched her peel away from our warm, salty-tear hugs and walk away.
With each stride she took, I knew it was far bigger than that. Those steps away from you the first year of college drop off are the beginning of what you’ve been dreaming of and dreading in equal measure since you found out you were going to be a parent. It’s the beginning of their journey that for the first time doesn’t really involve you.
All I have ever wanted for my kids was this exact moment. For them to have stayed healthy long enough to experience this great gift of going to college, to watch them start this with academic and personal confidence, and, of course, to miraculously fasten a felt college pennant with a Command strip to those glossy industrial walls that nothing sticks to. Check. Check. Check. Still, the emotions spun my heart wildly in competing directions leaving me almost breathless.
Luckily, I happen to be a bit of an expert in the idea of melancholy, of knowing why things will someday end or change mixes with love and gratitude to create a doozy of an emotional cocktail. I experienced it for the first time when I was 31, pregnant with our second child, this very child, and found myself crying inconsolably. When my husband asked me what was wrong, I said, thinking I was making complete sense, “I’m going to be 40.” Visibly confused, and a man of math and numbers, he very kindly added, “In 9 years,” to which I replied, “ I know, but it’s coming.”
In that moment, a block from her dorm, I knew. I knew without a doubt that once she stepped away from me, she’d enter a stage of her life that starts her on the much needed journey for the independence she craves, and, more importantly, she requires to bloom.
It’s like what Nathaniel Hawthorne said about unaccustomed earth that Jhumpa Lahiri centered her book on by the same name. This idea that if you continue to plant a person in the same ground they won’t flourish, but give them new soil and they will grow. I knew, maybe more so because she was the second child, that this benign first year of college drop-off sets her on a path, albeit a slow one, away from me and toward herself, as it should be.
As I watched her walk that short block, I thought about what a force of personality she is. I thought about how she fills a room with life. I thought about her unparalleled ability to leave behind a trail of messes. I thought about how demanding she can be, how outright exhausting, because she expects everyone to approach life like she does…with all senses firing at the same time. I thought about how much I’d miss all of it, even the messes.
This year it would be easy to blame COVID-19, that added layer of worry and uncertainty, for hyping up the tears, but I’m not going to do it. I’m tired of this latest coronavirus stealing all the thunder from our human experience. Sit down, COVID-19, you are not the main character here.
The main character is love. Love of your kids, their love of you. It’s why things in life are happy; it’s why things in life are sad. It’s why when she was walking toward her dorm, despite my sadness, my heart swelled with awe at her courage to move so far away and make a life for herself in this new place without us. It’s why, even though I’d take another look at her beautiful face anytime, I was really happy when she didn’t look back.
“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne