By Lisa Sugarman
Welcome to Part 2 of my 3-part series chronicling the buildup to the college drop off and the aftershock of sending my first child off to school. Last week was The Freshman Shopping List and starting to acknowledge that big changes are coming. This week is packing up, trying to process, and anticipating saying goodbye. And next week will focus on The New Normal.
God, this is all so weird. Like really, really weird.
So it’s not that I’m in denial or anything, it’s all just very surreal.
I’ve watched all the Target bags accumulate into a little Devils Tower-like mound in the corner of the basement. I’ve seen her friends already start to leave, the goodbyes getting more and more frequent. I’ve even caught myself hugging her every time she walks by me in the house. And while I’m not too sure how she feels about that, I really don’t care. I’m not doing it for her; I’m doing it for me.
And this week, her college text books have started coming in the mail. And she and her roommate already have plans to go to their first college hockey game. And my eyes, they’re doing this bizarre thing where they focus immediately on her college ID card now whenever she opens her wallet. It’s like I can’t look away.
But one of the strangest things I did this week was add her dorm’s mailing address to her contact name in my phone. Because, after Saturday, she won’t be living here anymore. That one was a big, drippy slice of reality. Too big. The kind that dangles off the edge of the plate.
Yet, at the very same time all these things are happening, it’s still been business as usual around the house, so there’s this odd sensation that the whole thing could, actually, just be a dream. That maybe she’s not going off to college after all. That maybe, come Saturday morning, we’ll just get up and I’ll make pancakes and then the girls will fight about who gets the bathroom first. And nothing will change. Such a big part of me wants that.
Because every day I still get up and find Riley in the kitchen, earbuds in, head dangling over her Mrs. DiCaprio coffee mug, wet towel lying half in and half out of her bedroom. (I’m sure she’ll continue to work on that in the dorm.) And I’m still more or less cooking for four almost every night. And there’s been no notable reduction in laundry load size or grocery bags or stray flip flops lying under the coffee table. And while, emotionally, there’s been this very obvious buildup to The Big Day, there’s also been an eerie sort of calm everywhere else because our days are still relatively the same.
So what this all really boils down to is that I’m not at all sure how the whole drop-off thing is going to go in a couple of days. Not sure at all.
My friend Sue, whose son Jesse left last week, texted me to say it’s worse than any labor pains she ever felt when he was born. And the closer we get to Drop-off Day, the more I get why she said that.
See, I’m an emotional personality type to begin with, so right off the tee I have a super-high handicap going into all this. In basic terms, I’m screwed. And I know it.
It’s like Dave keeps reminding me… since Riley was born, her leaving for college is the single biggest change that our family has experienced. It’s a big one. Huge. (By the way, hon, you can quit reminding me. I get it.)
And I cry sometimes at Concord grape jelly commercials, with all those cute little kids. So you can only imagine what my own kid leaving for college is doing to my emotional infrastructure. You’ve seen those videos of controlled demolition blasts leveling the old casinos in Vegas, right? Well that’s how my mind is anticipating the goodbye will go. And my insides are the hotel.
Look, I went to college. I know how this works. I’ve already lived through it. But from the complete opposite side. And let me assure you, there’s absolutely no similarity between being the kid going off to school and watching your own kid go off to school. It’s apples and oranges. Because, as parents, even though many of us have lived through the experience of leaving home and starting our adult life and fending for ourselves, that does literally nothing to prepare us to be the ones left behind.
Sure, I mean, I know what the shaky keg stand feels like and what it feels like to watch my mom get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror as I left home, tears running down my cheeks. But I have no idea what it feels like to be that mom in the mirror.
For me, and all the other parents experiencing this insanely gut-wrenching milestone, this is completely uncharted, untraveled territory. We have no way of knowing what our parents really went through when they said goodbye to us. And we won’t until we’re the parents saying goodbye to our own kids. And I’m like seconds away from doing that and part of me is terrified.
Now, the over/under is pretty high in my family that the car won’t even be away from the curb after we drop her off before I’m sobbing like a baby. (I mean I can barely see the screen through my own tears right now as I’m typing, so I can only imagine what this weekend will be like.) But the one thing I keep reminding myself is that change is good. Change is good. In fact, it’s the only thing we can ever really count on as we move through our life.
So my plan, if it’s even reasonable to call it a plan, is to just roll with all of these exciting and scary and wondrous moments the best that I can because they’re coming whether I’m (we’re) ready for them or not. And it makes way more sense to me to embrace them than to reject them. After all, that’s what we taught our kids to do, isn’t it?
Look, I don’t claim to know a lot about anything, but what I do know with absolute certainty is that I can’t live in the past and I can’t live even a second ahead of where I am right now. None of us can. So I’m just going to do my best to be in the moment and to anticipate the future with the same kind of joy and enthusiasm and wonder that Riley is. She’s embracing what’s ahead of her in the fullest possible way and, ironically, her strength is motivating me to do the same.
Funny how we spend all these years as parents giving our children the skills and the knowledge to move bravely and courageously through their life and then, almost without warning, they turn right around and give it back to us exactly when we need it most.
So I’m flying blind here. But that’s the only way we’re supposed to fly at this point. This is like our graduation from Top Gun. That’s why I’m going to close my eyes and believe, in my heart, that Dave and I have done our job well. Because the rest isn’t up to us. This is where we, as parents, gracefully step aside and move out of the way.
Deep breath. Here we go…
Lisa Sugarman lives just north of Boston, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at facebook.com/ItIsWhatItIsColumn. She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is available on Amazon.com and at select Whole Foods Market stores.