I sent my son back to college last week, waving with what I hope looked like cheerfulness as he backed his truck from the driveway.
He returned 20 minutes later, having forgotten something important, though I can’t now remember what it was. A shirt, maybe, or a favorite jacket. He pulled in front of the house, rolled down his window for the hand-off, and said, “Thanks, Mom; see ya,” and drove away again. I heard the echo of old friend’s voice from 20 years earlier: Having a child is forever wearing your heart on the outside of your body.
I was still for a minute, thinking of my own mother, remembering how I’d watched her standing by the door watching me as I, too, pulled away at the end of Christmas and summer breaks during my college years. I felt a faint wave of uncertainty at each departure, knowing things would change for both of us between that moment and the next time we were together. I knew she would probably be in a different house when I returned, because moving every year or two was our reality after she and my father divorced. Every goodbye carried a little extra weight, a fragility around which we both were careful. To her credit, she never once broke her brave-mother character. From my earliest years I had a distinct intolerance for sappy emotion, and she knew it. She smiled and waved, and I drove off — one time, after a freak snowstorm.
Later, when I was in my mid-20s, my mother would describe this particular feeling as an exquisite, excruciating mix of love, pride, grief, and loneliness, held together by sheer will. Whether her preparing me for this experience has made things easier or not, I can’t say. The strangeness of the past year has clouded my rational understanding of things, and time has bent in an unnatural way.
We moved my son, my firstborn child, into his dorm in mid-August, not long after my 55th birthday. I was late to motherhood, compared to my high school and college peers, and I’ve always been grateful for the additional 10 years of perspective, for the benefit of hitting middle age self-discovery at the exact time my children hit adolescent self-discovery. Seeing a world of infinite possibilities, even from starkly different age perspectives, united us.
And as my son prepared for college (“supervised release,” I called it, as he completed his college applications), I knew he was ready for this step. It was his time.
He spent the summer working at a camp, one of the very few that was open. Having him sequestered on a mountain in rural Alabama for two months seemed the least risky of all the available, abundantly risky options. He drove himself, in the truck he and his father had rebuilt, so he would have the freedom to come home for graduation, if a graduation ceremony eventually took place. (It did.) It was the first time he’d driven, alone, to a destination six hours away. When he didn’t check in upon arrival, I panicked and emailed the camp director. “MOM!” my son screamed into the phone an hour later, “I’m FINE! And now I have to do clean-up duty because I got in trouble for not calling you!”
The 10 days he was at home between camp and college were frenetic with last-minute, overdue dentist and doctor check-ups. The time compression had the side benefit of forestalling sentimentality. We opened a checking account, made two trips to Ikea, did normal things, all in short order, following college checklists and advice from friends who were a step or two ahead on this journey.
Early one morning, we packed the rental Suburban, finding even it just a little too small for the job and having to make last minute discards. He didn’t need a second refrigerator, and the panini press was against the rules anyway. We loaded up, all four of us. It was one of only handful of family road trips we’d made in the past 20 years. We were never that kind of family and have become less and less so as time has worn on.
But this juncture, we all realized was momentous. We loaded the car, unloaded the car, navigated the dorm protocols, and left him to settle in. No photos; no welcome receptions; no parents’ weekends. College in a pandemic, but college nonetheless.
Then, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, he came home. He arrived a day sooner than expected, wanting to surprise me. He tumbled out of a friend’s car, laden with bags, needing a haircut and wanting a home-cooked meal.
And he stayed.
Thanksgiving stretched into Christmas, then Christmas to New Year’s, and New Year’s to Valentine’s Day. Campus had reopened on schedule, but he lingered at home. His high school friends peeled away, one by one, returning to their college lives. His fraternity brothers called, wondering where he was, when he would come back.
For three months he cooked his own eggs for breakfast, spent days working with his dad, padded his bank account, washed his own laundry, attended class virtually, sat with me in the kitchen at night after dinner, talking about nothing in particular, the way we did almost exactly a year ago when the novel coronavirus began reshaping the world. We talked about GameStop and collectible sneakers, about how to use starchy pasta water to make a sauce, about how there will always be work to do but only one freshman year of college.
This particular rite of passage, if it happens, happens only once.
“It hurts his feelings, you know,” his sister said, one day when she and I were in the car alone. “When you tell him he needs to go back to school, he thinks you don’t want him around.”
Of course I wanted him home. I wanted to stay suspended in the magic of altered time, to hold on to its preciousness for as long at it might last.
Then a freak winter storm moved through, freezing everything in place under a blanket of thick snow. By the time it started to thaw, a week later, he’d finally had his fill and was ready to move on. While home he’d bought a truck of his own, with his own money. As soon as the roads cleared, he started packing his things, preparing to head back to his life, the one that must be his alone.
“Don’t forget to feed the cat, Mom,” he said, as he gave his room a final sweep.
Though his back window I could see his hand raised, waving as he looked in the rear view mirror. I stood on the sidewalk smiling and waving in response, feeling beside me the invisible legions of mothers who were, who are, who will be.