My cousin’s daughter went off to college this week. She posted pictures on Facebook; one in particular held my interest for a long time. In it, my cousin and her husband are standing in the doorway of their daughter’s college dorm room, waving goodbye. My cousin has a big smile on her face, and her husband’s lips are a straight line sealed tight.
I knew my cousin had a huge lump in her throat, despite the big smile, and I saw the sadness on her husband’s face, as he tried to control the emotion he was feeling at that moment. I also knew the second they turned around and headed back to the car, the tears would begin to flow.
My first child went off to college this very same week, back in 1995, and though we didn’t take a picture of that parting scene, we shared those same painful emotions. I remember swallowing that huge lump in my throat as we drove off and I watched our son waving goodbye, his body getting smaller and smaller, as we drove away from the school parking lot.
At the time, I remember thinking I’ve done this before. This scene is all too familiar, as my mind flashed back to his first day of Kindergarten back in 1982…My five-year old son with his new vinyl schoolbag in hand, wearing an orange shirt, tan shorts and a dessert-sized white paper plate hanging from his neck with his name written in thick black crayon.
I remember thinking, if only he didn’t have to wear that ridiculous paper plate around his neck. He slumped his shoulders forward and hung his head the moment I slipped it on, as if his neck was carrying such a heavy weight.
I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him in that unfamiliar place in the hands of strangers. I lingered as long as I possibly could, squeezing my fingers through the chain link fence to watch him line up with the other children, some of them wailing out of control.
Then the dreaded moment had arrived and the line started moving forward into the building. I stood there anyway, watching his back as he shuffled in line, his head hanging down, watching the ground and following the child in front of him. When he got closer to the door, he stopped and turned around to look for me. When our eyes locked, his face brightened for an instant and I threw him a fake smile and one last energetic wave.
My eyes had already started to fill up, but I hoped he hadn’t seen that from the distance. Then, his mouth turned down into that little frown I knew so well. He held onto that frown as he lifted his hand up to give me one slow weak wave back. Then he was gone.
As I pushed the stroller back home, I let the tears fall freely. I must have sniffled and gasped a few times because my two-year-old turned around to ask, “Mommy, you crying?”
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m sad because Peter had to go to school.”
“Don’t be sad, mommy; be happy.”
“Ok,” I told him as I wiped the tears off my face. “I’ll try.”
And then, a few moments later, he asked me, “Are you happy now, mommy?”
I had to laugh out loud because in his simple request that I “be happy” now, I thought to myself – could it be that simple? Is being happy simply a choice we make?
I took a few deep breaths to clear my head and found myself smiling at the thought that we had made it through one of the major milestones in my son’s life – his “leaving home” for a full day at school. Nowadays, children attend Nursery and Pre-K for years before Kindergarten. But, back in 1982, this was a huge step for both my son and me.
That day, I looked down at the little head bobbing in the stroller in front of me and I realized these children, born to me, are not mine to keep. I am only their guardian, for a short time. My real job as a mother, from the moment they are born, is to prepare them to leave – to give them a strong foundation of love and moral guidance – so that when it is time for them to go, they can take that leap out of the nest and fly smoothly through whatever obstacles life throws in their path, without crashing to the ground.
That first break from home is the hardest one. So that, by the time they move away to college or to their first apartment, or to another country, hopefully, we parents have come to terms with the fact that we do not own our children and we must some day let them go.
By the time we dropped our son off at college in August of 1995, I was excited for him to get started on his life – away from us – to become the man he would be. My husband had different feelings.
Waving goodbye from the car window and not wanting to lose eye contact, I unbuckled my seatbelt and twisted my head out the window until cars and traffic blotted him out of my sight.
I swallowed the lump I had been holding in my throat, took a deep breath, buckled my seatbelt and smiled.
“Well, he’s off. That’s done!” I said, running a mental list of all the things we had shopped for and packed up in the past few weeks. Did he pack his toothbrush? I wondered. It’s the little things you forget on these big moves.
It was then that I heard my husband sniffling. “Do you have any tissues?” he asked.
I looked over at him and saw his face covered with tears, his eyes overflowing.
“Are you crying?” I asked in disbelief. “Why are you crying?”
“Why do you think?!” he said. “Give me some tissues; I can’t see where I’m going.”
“Pull over; I’ll drive! You’re going to kill us!”
“I’m going to miss him,” he continued. “I don’t feel like I spent enough time with him.”
“That’s not true,” I said, and I talked on for the next ten minutes – until the tears had cleared and we were safely on the parkway – trying to convince him that it was time for our son to go, for us to let go, and let him start his own life.
“How come you can handle this so well?” he asked.
“Because I was there on the first day of Kindergarten,” I told him. “I’ve already been through this.” Then, recalling the wisdom of my two-year-old son, so many years ago, I told him, “Let’s not be sad today. Let’s be happy.”
“Is it that simple?” he asked.
“Yes, it is.”