This week my son will move into his dorm at Winona (Minn.) State University to begin, as all the letting go books call it, “a new chapter.” I’m thrilled that Alex is about to start a great adventure: living away from home, meeting new people, figuring out who he wants to become.
Still, it’s an uneasy time for parents. A few days before Alex’s high school graduation I talked to Karen, my best friend since first grade.
“I cried all the way to the (Twin) Cities,” she told me on the phone. “I’m just a mess.”
“What’s the matter?” I said. I was thinking family crisis.
“Our kids are graduating.”
“Oh yeah.” Then I said affectionately, “You big baby.”
I sat behind Karen at graduation, the two of us wedged between other parents and a concrete wall in the packed Chi-Hi gymnasium.
I kept thinking how blessed we were to be there together, just like at our eighth grade graduation from Holy Ghost in 1982 and our high school graduation from McDonell in 1986. We’ve got history, to say the least.
“I have Kleenex,” Karen said before Chi-Hi’s ceremony began. I laughed when she opened her purse to show me a huge balled up wad.
“I’ve got my own.” I pulled out my tidy little wallet pack, which I brought mostly for her.
I didn’t cry. Through “Pomp and Circumstance.” Through watching Alex — my only child — and Brittany — Karen’s oldest child and my godchild — walk in the processional. Through the predictable speeches and the assistant principal’s funny send-off.
Then graduates who enlisted in the armed forces were asked to stand. My heart sank. I hadn’t thought about that.
Graduation to boot camp. Next stop: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq.
The 11 young men and women stood, and the audience erupted. Thousands of us immediately got to our feet to give them a roaring ovation.
Karen noticed I was crying and put her arm around me.
“Your boy isn’t going,” she whispered.
“Somebody’s boy or girl is.”
I clapped harder.
When we all sat back down, Karen gave one of her rumpled Kleenexes to a mother in front of us.
My tears started around 8:15 p.m. on Friday, June 5, and, over two months later, they still haven’t stopped.
I cried through preparations for Alex’s graduation party: when I brought home the 16-by-20 poster of my boy and realized it was the kind you often find set upon an easel next to a casket. Or when I worked on arranging 17 year’s worth of photographs in one album, pairing “baby Alex” with “man Alex.”
On one of my more dramatic nights I found myself thinking, “This party is like a funeral for Alex’s childhood.”
Then came news reports of three dead Chi-Hi boys, whose parents are dealing with a tragic letting go I can’t even begin to imagine. Within eight days our community lost three fine young men. I never again considered my son’s grad party anything but a celebration of his future.
Still, I cried in the bedding aisle at Shopko when I spotted crib sheets while searching for dorm sheets. And I got teary each time I heard “Where I’m From” on the country station.
Weeks ago I told Alex, “I know the last thing you want to do this summer is hang out with your mom, but I want to spend some time with you. I’m going to miss you.” I started to tear up again, and he walked away.
He yelled from another room, “You know I can come home once I go to college, right?”
What I do know is that once he moves to Winona, Minn., he’ll officially become a visitor in my life. I cried some more. Nobody called me a big baby, though I’m guessing Alex wanted to.
Besides wondering if my kid is still drinking enough milk and taking a vitamin at college, studying too little or partying too much—what if he doesn’t want to visit me? It’s just one aspect of his “new chapter” over which I have little control.
“I should’ve had a spare son,” I teased Alex when he was seven and wanted to climb on the roof or when he was sixteen and saving for a motorcycle.
I found myself thinking that a lot this summer.
For three weeks in June, I led “Coffee and Conversation” sessions for parents at UW-Eau Claire’s New Student Orientation. My job was to facilitate a 30-minute discussion with parents of first-year students. Though I’ve done it for years, this time I paid closer attention to advice offered by “experienced” parents who had sent at least one child to college.
“Find out if your kid really wants you to linger in the dorm when you move him in,” one mother suggested.
She told the story of how her son warned her on the way to his residence hall, “Don’t think you’re going to hang around and fold my clothes.” When they got to his dorm they encountered his roommate’s mother with her son’s socks and underwear on the bed ready for her to fold and put away.
This mother laughed when she told the other parents at our table, “My son shot me a look that said, ‘It’s time for you to go now.’ ”
One father said, “When they call home, just listen. I never drill my daughter with questions, I listen. She spends more time on the phone with me than with my wife.”
“Remember you’re hours away and can’t fix everything,” another mother said. “Sometimes kids just call home to vent. They don’t want you to get in the car and drive there and fix their problems, even though you’d like to.”
Another said her daughter called and asked her mom to come and get her for the weekend. The mother refused, knowing that staying at school and getting involved would cure her daughter’s homesickness more than coming home.
“It was the hardest thing I had to do,” she said. Her eyes welled at something that happened over three years ago. “But it helped her adjust. She made friends and loved school, and she’ll graduate next spring.”
Exactly what all of us parents of college freshmen are hoping for, once we get past our own tears.
Patti See teaches developmental education and Women’s Studies classes at UW-Eau Claire and is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.