It's getting to that time of year, when mothers and fathers take their 18-year-olds off to college. Last year I put my youngest daughter on a plane for Massachusetts. It was one of the hardest things I've done, not counting the first time I did it.
After going through this twice, I've learned that giving birth was the easy part. It's their leaving that really hurts.
Here's something I wrote way back in the dark ages, before blogging. (It was actually for an Erma Bombeck writing contest. I didn't win.) Anyway, I thought some moms or dads out there might find it useful. Even the most confident high school senior is probably a little nervous right now.
Sixteen hundred miles, the trip odometer reads, just as we pull into the tiny town of Oberlin, where, after an orientation designed to set my mind at ease, I plan to abandon my college-bound daughter. I turn to point out the mileage to her, but the look on her face stops me mid-sentence. “Can we go back home?” she asks, doubt suddenly asserting itself, turning her voice into an unaccustomed quiver.
My heart squeezes as I ignore the question. She’ll get over it, as soon as she makes a friend or two.
But two days later, she still clings like soggy tissue paper as I prepare to make an exit. Another 1600-mile trip lies ahead of me, but I can’t bear to leave my firstborn, alone in a muggy dorm full of freshmen and brand new mini-fridges.
Have they cashed the tuition check, I wonder? A high school education was good enough for my parents—why not my daughter? What will my husband say when I return to New Mexico with a college dropout instead of an empty seat?
She hasn’t cried this much since she lost Frisbee, a stuffed rabbit that rode in her tricycle basket, accompanying her to lemonade stands (her first enterprise) and to preschool, the first day there not nearly as traumatic, I remember now.
Maybe she can sign up for a fingerpainting class, and learn Stop, Drop and Roll instead of economics. I’ll buy her some Ritz crackers and raisins, for the days she has to bring snack.
She was so fearless back then, a four-year-old co-ed who’d jump from the swing yelling “Watch me fly!” Friends were a cubby basket away, and the teachers didn’t care when she wrote her name backwards.
Now she just cries, despair dripping down her face like a pathetic rainstorm.
She doesn’t want me to leave but I do. I climb in my Volvo, glad the night hides my own tear-stained face, and say goodbye to the dorm, to my daughter, to the days when a short tricycle trip was all that separated us, and a Ritz cracker was all she needed to get through the morning.
I set the odometer back to zero. Sixteen hundred miles, and four years to go—an entire lifetime to a preschooler.
She calls me weeks later. She’s spending Thanksgiving in New Jersey, with one of the friends she’s made.
Maybe preschool taught her something after all.
Or maybe Frisbee’s been made the patron saint of college freshmen, watching over her as she flies....
That same daughter is now a high school teacher, after three colleges, four majors, and five years. We're both a little wiser now, but I still wish I could hug her close this morning as she heads off to her new school.