Three days before my son was scheduled to leave for college 300 miles away, it hit me that it meant he would actually no longer be living with us. One less place setting on the dinner table and an empty bed upstairs. I burst into tears at this sudden revelation and wondered how I hadn’t thought about this before. What was I thinking all summer long as we excitedly shopped the back to school lists, making sure he had everything and anything he could possibly ever need for the rest of his life. I must have been in a state of denial thinking that even though he was going to college, he would still be home for dinner and sleep in his own bed every night. Needless to say I cried for two days straight.
Hiding my emotional collapse from the rest of the family was not easy, but with the unexpected heart-pounding realization that my life would never be the same again, I felt helpless. In a weak attempt, I froze teaspoons to use on my puffy eyes and had to wear my old eye glasses—the ones I got when I was in college with the loose lens that fell out whenever I looked down—because my contacts kept getting clouded up from the tears. Hopefully, no one noticed.
I pulled it together for the day of reckoning and the seven-hour car ride by convincing myself that this is how it’s supposed to be. What parent wants a high school grad with no ambition that sits on the couch all day watching TV and playing video games? If that’s the alternative, then having the opportunity to send my child away to college was, in fact, a true blessing. I went through the motions of Freshman Move-In Day with the constant dread of that last goodbye, praying that I would stay composed (at least outwardly) and not embarrass my son.
Half way through the day, something amazing happened. Mundane, yet brilliant. My husband suggested we take our son’s class schedule and visit his classrooms. All I could think of was that we were just delaying the inevitable dreaded goodbye, but I acquiesced and we did our little tour. It wasn’t until days later, when classes officially started, that I realized what a gift it was to have visited the empty classroom buildings that day. I posted my son’s schedule up on the refrigerator, just as I had done when he was in high school, and every time I looked at it, I could envision the building and the classroom he was sitting in at that time. This simple idea gave me great comfort in that I still felt connected. I knew what his days were like and where he was at certain times. Of course, it wasn’t as gutsy as sending him a Facebook friend request (the chance of him accepting was about 1 in a million) which I did about a week after we left him, only to learn to my great surprise he had accepted it. To this day, I swear he had to have been in some sort of compromised mental state and didn’t know what he was doing. I never dared to post or comment on anything, but did get to see who his new friends were—another affirmation that he was ok without us.
It was hard at first, missing him so much, but then it started to get better. The heartache was replaced with thoughts and plans for when we would see him again, what to send in care packages, texting clips from the hometown newspaper, and just staying connected. After the first month, I began to establish a new routine and focus. Although things were different, I have to admit, it wasn’t bad.
The best advice I can share from my own experience is: (1) take that tour of your child’s classrooms and post his or her class schedule on your refrigerator when you get home; (2) don’t say goodbye without some sort of plan for the next time you will all be together, whether it’s Parents’ Weekend, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving etc.; and (3) text wisely and sparingly. Don’t ask more than one question per text (they will only answer one); text an interesting update or photo (usually the family dog); and try to keep it to one simple text per day or even every two days so they can focus on being the independent person they need to be.
Stay tuned for the next chapter where I realize I have only two years until my daughter goes off to college and we become empty nesters. That, my friend, is when the world really ends.