Singing the college drop-off blues

When your first child leaves the nest for college, you have to hold yourself together
By Christina Kelly  Published on 08/29/2018 at 3:58 PM EDT
All moved into the dorm!

A couple of weeks ago, I was crossing the street two blocks from my house when a woman I know waved from her car. Her daughter and my son had gone to pre-school together. And they were about to start college.

We looked at each other solemnly. “Has she left yet?” I asked. “Tomorrow,” she said. I put my hand to my heart and almost started to cry. “I’m losing it,” I told her.

“Me too,” she said. “We’ll talk.” She drove off. Later that day, she sent me a message. A boy who had grown up with our children was leaving for McGill in a few days, and his mother was also freaking out. “Hang in there,” she told me. “We will lean on one another.”

I am so grateful for the support of other mothers, and the assurance that the way I am feeling right now–as if the world as I know it is ending–is a common way parents feel when their children leave home. I’ve been crying at random times ever since this spring. I would drop my 15-year-old daughter off at the high school, notice elementary school children waiting for the school bus with their parents, and commence weeping. Because it had all gone by too quickly. I hadn’t had a chance to really, really appreciate it. I was too busy making breakfasts and packing lunches and catching school busses and filling out forms. Thousands and thousands of forms. And it was too late now. All those moments, those sunny early mornings at the bus stop where I should be soaking up the cuteness, I’d never get them back.

One such morning, a neighbor who had lived up the street from us for 16 years, but who I didn’t know that well, was out walking her dog. “How are you doing?” she asked. She told me that when her son left for college she would cry while walking the dog. With this story, she was letting me know, it’ll be ok. Still, I did not handle the transition well. I wrote a maudlin post for my personal blog the day before he graduated. Then a couple of weeks ago, I came home from church crying. “What happened?” asked my husband. I blew my nose. “Sean left Thursday and Nick is leaving Friday,” I said. I now apparently couldn’t even handle the prospect of other people’s kids, the ones I’d watch grow up, leaving for college. He laughed at me.

One last big cry occurred this Sunday at church. Some sadist who planned the worship decided to close with the hymn “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” I lost it, and after the service, my friend Grace, who has a daughter my age and a grandson the age of my son, asked what on earth was the matter. “It’s silly,” I said, “But Dale is leaving for college tomorrow.”

She gave me the most understanding hug. “It’s traumatic,” she said. “ And you’re supposed to feel exactly this way. He’s going to be fine, because of your love. And he won’t call, and he won’t write, because they don’t.” I think I got snot on her blouse.

So. At about 4 p.m. later that day, Dale decided to start packing. He also remembered an entire sheaf of forms he had not yet completed, due on arrival. And he had just heard he would need a microwavable set of dishes, so he and his girlfriend popped off to the hardware store, leaving every item of clothing he owned on his bedroom floor. I texted a friend, whose son had left earlier in the week, about the lack of progress that had been made. Her son “remembered at the last minute he hadn’t actually chosen classes,” she replied. “I miss him.”

Here’s the funny thing. By the time we got to campus for the drop-off, I was so focused on helping Dale set up his room and making sure that he felt comfortable, that I was fairly composed, for me. Because he is an athlete, he had to arrive two days prior to freshman orientation, and so there weren’t many people on campus. No R.A. awaited. His dorm was largely empty and there was no one to explain things. At the residential life office, he was handed a room key and his school ID card and basically sent on his way. We parents had received no communication about the early athlete check-in, and as far as I know, there were no events for parents. We had received a schedule of all the awesome events we would be missing on the regular move-in day, though, and I am bitter that we didn’t get to attend the meet-and-greet with the president and the free parent/student lunch.

The room was stifling hot. We opened the windows and set up the fan. We made the bed, arranged the furniture, unpacked the clothes and school supplies and toiletries. The over-the-door mirror wasn’t quite working out; the quilt handmade by Dale’s girlfriend’s mother was perfect, and the sheets we had picked out seemed nice and soft. My husband went to Best Buy to pick up the mini-fridge and stocked it with Gatorade. Suddenly, Dale realized that he was 30 minutes late for an athlete dinner; after some confusion, we located it. Dale was a little rattled, and my husband and I went out for dinner. He asked us to meet him at his dorm for a final goodbye before he headed off to practice. Only then did I cry–but just a little. “You’re my pride and joy,” I told him, squeezing him tight. It’s a thing I’ve always said to him. It’s not original, but it’s true.

Last night was the first one at home without him. A link to a post called “Emptying the Nest, One College Freshman at a Time” by Anne Vaccaro Brady, editor of Parents Guide to the College Puzzle, popped up on my Facebook page. Anne is a former colleague who handles every situation with grace. Her blog has been invaluable to me these past two years. Last night these words resonated: “Stop staring at the empty bedroom and appreciate the fact that you raised a young adult who can live without you.” OK, Anne, I’ll work on it.

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