Letting go without falling apart—when your youngest goes to college

Letting go without falling apart

It was a late start, but then again, that was all part of the plan.

Most college kids were already in school — some had even come home for a weekend. But those California folks have their own ideas about a lot of things — start times, grading quarters, and an odd tradition of not knowing who your roommate is until move-in day.

Regardless of the context, the reality remains — I was sending my youngest child to college. My life would soon forever change.

I’d been preparing for months — envisioning the trip, booking flights, hotels and specialized services. Traveling by wheelchair is not easy, especially 3,000 miles away from home.

But my biggest challenge was the mental preparation, trying to find that perfect zone where I could gracefully let go … without falling apart.

I sought the advice of other mothers.

Some were practical: “Bring tissues.” “Wear dark glasses.” “Wait until you get into the car to cry,” they advised.

Others laid out the unvarnished truth: “It’s awful,” one said. “I cried every day for weeks.” “I don’t know how you are going to do it,” another said. “It’s so far away.”

But the best advice came from a 25-year-old young woman, who was not a mother at all.

“You will be fine,” she texted me the morning of the move-in day. “Just think of it as so exciting!” my wise daughter wrote.

So I banished the stoic mantra I had concocted, “He’s ready. I’m ready,” for the more energized, “It’s so exciting!” and was surprised at the shift in my attitude. When I focused on the excitement of the unknown, rather than the fear of it, the loss became filled with wonder and anticipation.

“It’s so exciting,” I thought as we had our last breakfast together before heading to campus, letting the possibilities of the next morning’s meal lighten the tone.

“It’s so exciting,” I repeated as we emptied the car and filled half the dorm room, hypothesizing about the young man who would soon fill the other half.

Unlike my daughter’s all-day dorm move-in six years ago, the unpacking went quickly. The young men gently dismissed us to wander the campus until Convocation and the grand finale — a “welcome home” parent-student meeting back at the dorm.

“The conclusion of this event is the traditional time for you to say good-bye to your family members,” the student schedule stated so matter-of-factly.

But, it was an artful goodbye.

The dorm’s 97 students and their parents crammed into the sun-filled lounge where the Resident Fellow family — parents, two kids and a dog and cat who lived in the dorm’s apartment — introduced us to the other resident advisors. After a slide show featuring each student, we were told the time had come for us to say good-bye.

Hugs and tears muffled our farewells until the students departed. Only the parents remained.

“We know you’ve said good-bye, but here’s one last chance for you to share your parting words,” a voice said quietly above the emotional silence.

“Take a marker and write a note to your child on the glass panes, if you like. Give it careful thought as it will be here all year,” we were reminded.

Slowly the parents moved to the panes and began to craft their well wishes.

“It’s so exciting,” I whispered to myself as I took the pen in my hand. “Deep roots. Strong wings. Big heart. Show them what you’ve got, Pete.”

And I wheeled away from the windows and headed out the door.

He belongs. He is well cared for. He is doing what we have been preparing him to do. All part of the plan.

It’s so exciting.

And I made it to the car.

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in The Baltimore Sun.