I saw Hoda Kotb today in New York about to start her third hour of The Today Show. I waved through the glass and she waved back! It was raining, but her sunny smile lifted me, exactly what I needed after settling my son into his dorm.
The morning before was the big move-in. We were happy, packed the right things (and they fit), the roommates were nice, and his succulents were digging their 14thfloor window. We left him there that morning since he wanted to get a feel for the place and grab lunch with his new buddies, and we drove around to find our own lunch. The morning’s high started to fade, and a strange quiet floated around us as we ate, cloaked in the bizarre enormity of our visit. My stomach was queasy, as if I had a root canal planned that afternoon, bringing the day down a few notches. A margarita offered a slight salve, temporarily tabling the pain.
We went about our day but didn’t hear from Benjamin who was busy with orientation. After the 6pm parent meeting, the three of us walked around outside close to his dorm in case he would want to join us for dinner. We looked up toward his room, craning our necks to find the 14thfloor. We were paparazzi waiting out a Ben sighting. It’s the one with the art leaning in the window, right? Does anyone remember how low his shades were pulled? We needed a sign. Nothing.
Looking for a restaurant, we kept staring at our phones. Still nothing. I saw an ice cream truck inching along, its sick I took your child and he’s in my creepy van music droning, as if from an old Victrola. That same queasy feeling returned. We settled on pizza, telling the hostess table for three — but it might be four — and she got us a booth.
We walked the eight blocks to our hotel. 10 p.m. and still nothing. He is busy, I told myself, wondering what he did all day. The silence was deafening. I know he’s fine. He’ll move along carried by the stream of this city, lifted by friends and the good energy college brings. Certain he’s eaten, but where? Did he go to the dining hall or out? Did I transfer money to his account? My monkey mind stopped long enough for me to sleep.
Up early the next day before anyone, I headed out on a fabulously long walk, ten miles if you count the whole day. After a few hours, I stopped for coffee, wondering how his first night went. Was the bed comfortable, roommates nice, dining hall decent? I thought of Maurice Sendak’s book, Pierre, about the family who came home to find their son missing, eaten by a lion. Where’s Pierre? Forget Pierre, where’s Benjamin? Maybe the city gobbled him up. I wanted to turn it upside down by its legs, give it a good shake and have it cough up Ben. Then we could all exclaim, “Ben was in there!” and give him a hug and reunite, all happy and grateful.
Where in the world is Ben Greco? Will I get to see him before I leave? I bought him his favorite, Twizzlers, which I kept in my bag with the toiletries he forgot, as if carrying them around would will him to call. Still nothing.
Getting up to leave I checked my phone once more, and voila!, there it was, a shiny new text. He’s up, needs art hooks and two-sided tape, and might be free after his 10am session. A feast for sore eyes, the text lunged me back into our rhythm, our connection, and I felt a new purpose scanning my phone for a store. The packing, road trip, move in and now worry had worn me out, but all the walking smoothed out the rough spots. I reminded myself that while this may be his time, it’s mine too. Time to unlace our fingers, stop hovering, which served me well once upon a time, and park that helicopter. He knows the way home and will return.
It’s well documented that this college drop-off is a big deal for families. Friends tell me we should have a drink together to cry about the children we’ve sent away. Everyone keeps asking how I am, as if they know what’s ahead, seen my labs and feel the sympathy I’m evidently going to need. I’m scared to cry about this; maybe I’ll look like a loser, a wuss or the tears won’t ever stop. Instead, I’ve honed the ability to build up my eye’s tear duct muscles and am expert in holding it all back. I’ve felt it coming a few times but willed it to stop, willed my eyes to dry, shamed them into it even. So far, it’s working.
His roommate’s mom from Staten Island is darling and keeps texting me with news about the guys, hoping they’ll visit her one weekend. A mother hen, she went to IKEA on move-in day to buy furniture to hold their appliances — a microwave, toaster oven, even a rice cooker. She called me in the car, disappointed, wondering why I hadn’t taken a photo with her on my way out. At the height of move-in-my-child mode, I never considered this trip could bring me new opportunities. We were only a block away, so we stopped the car, and I walked back to the dorm so her husband could take our picture. She’s texted me every day since. I guess I’m not the only one missing her son.
So what’s there to cry about? I’m just a mother who dropped her child off at college. He’s healthy, in a great city, so what’s the big deal? It’s the shutdown of communication that gets me and the new normal with which I now must grapple. I won’t let myself text him often as I’ve read too many articles warning me what not to do at drop off and beyond. Let him reach out to me, they say. I know he will and when I see him again, he will have changed. We will soon fly home and walk into our own new normal, changing too. Our old and new selves will weave into something bigger, and we’ll see bits of each when we come back together again. And again. I know all of this.
Still, I feel it. A big chunk of my heart is walking around without me. I think it’s the strong part that holds back my tears, lifts me up and pumps B positive blood reminders through my veins. So why am I left with the weak part lamenting this and remembering that? I was the lens through which he saw so much. For this next journey, he will see things that I won’t, and vice versa. It’s not just walking, running, college and beyond. There is in-between stuff for which no mother can prepare you. It’s curiosity, confidence, growing up and seeing life and yourself through your own lens. Wherever he is, I know he will always be in my heart. Turns out, my muscles aren’t getting it done. Those damn tears, they keep returning.
I’m on the plane now heading home. The city below is alive and sparkling, and I can see the Empire State building near his school. He’s out there, down there, somewhere, and I’m leaving my heart in New York City. When you decide to have children, you sign up for your heart to break into pieces and live in other places. I’m a collision of equal parts proud, glad and sad. The memories are messing with me, tugging me to go back in time to tender moments, little hands and lullabies.
After we landed and got home, I noticed we each wandered into his room at separate times, looking around in the dark, the pillow and lamp gone, art taken off the walls. We feel him everywhere, while his stuff, his shoes, the physical evidence now lives six states away. It’s not a death, it’s life. It’s not negative, it’s positive. Still, I decided to torture myself and open his closet door. Gone, all of it. His brother came home from school today and as he often does, asked, “Where’s Ben?” He stopped himself, smirked and rolled his eyes. Duh.
What a trip it’s been but what a trip it still is. There are new memories ahead, family get togethers, conversations, work to do and places to go. I’m going to dry my tears, dust off my running shoes and get back to the business of life here with my family. I heart New York and I heart Benjamin, but mostly, I heart myself enough to let the sadness give way to joy. There was yesterday and there is tomorrow, but I think I’m going to tune in to Today.