A version of this essay was originally published as “It’s Leaving Day for My Freshman Daughter” at Living the 2nd Act.
There are no more days until we depart for my youngest daughter’s move-in to college. We leave today.
I expected hysterics, a rough night, moodiness or a ton of emotion, but we haven’t had any of that. We HAVE had a cancelled flight, but we jumped on it and got new flights on another airline. We felt victorious that we solved this problem. More money, more fees, but at this point, we’ve almost stopped tracking the dollars. Tuition, room and board, more trips to Big Box stores than I can count. It’s costing a lot. But I guess we just don’t want to know.
There’s a lot of that going on lately. Head in the sand. The money’s probably the least of it. Instead of the big picture stuff like life lessons and parting words of parental wisdom, I’ve been thinking about the little stuff. And by “thinking about,” I mean laser focusing on the minutiae, the logistics. Like what suitcases we should pack in. Which bags should fit inside which others so we can bring them home after unpacking. We were so smart. We booked the airline with two free suitcases so the three of us, my daughter and husband and I, could take six free suitcases to college. And the flight, which we booked months ago, was reasonably cheap. Weren’t we smart?
Yep, that’s the flight that got canceled. Joke’s on us. But again, it’s just more money, more fees. It’s not the serious stuff.
Serious is running my baby girl to get forms witnessed and notarized so if she falls ill or becomes unconscious we can talk to her doctor. Yep, that would be serious. Not going there. No need. Just sign the forms and let’s stop at Starbucks on the way home for an iced coffee.
Serious is checking, and checking again, that she knows how to use all those over the counter medicines we packed. You know, in case she gets a cold. Or a fever or a splinter or some other little thing that of course she can handle, because she’s resourceful and competent and also has a cell phone to call me if she needs me. Packing all the necessities as insurance against these little things.
I am unnaturally focused on the little things. And I know why.
I’m packing her up and managing logistics because I know that I can’t insure against the big stuff. Can’t guarantee her physical safety or psychological well-being. I can’t hold her precious, magnificent heart in the palm of my hands and protect her from sadness or being hurt. I even know it’s not better to protect against those things — those experiences are growing lessons for her — but knowing that doesn’t keep me from wanting to try. I can’t choose her friends or her classes or what she does with her time. I can warn her not walk alone at night, but I can’t prevent her from doing it “just this once.” She knows not to leave a drink unattended, not to get into an Uber without triple checking that it’s the right one, not to leave her wallet on the table at the coffee shop while she goes to the bathroom. She knows all these things and a thousand more, but I can’t make her do (or not do) all the things, all the little things we all know.
I can’t even advise, because if I talk too much, she will stop listening. This I know because she is my third and last child, but remembering to talk less and listen more is still very much a work in progress for me.
She is savvy, she makes good choices, but she’s 18 and she’s my baby. I don’t see 18 when I watch her sleep. I see the tiny spiral her hair still makes at the top of her forehead. I see the dimple that miraculously never disappeared behind her left shoulder. All I want to do is scoop her up and hug her so much it hurts, but since I have taught her that sleep cures most ills, I will not disturb her or try to impart any more wisdom.
Instead, I organize.
Which is quite a feat for me. I am very messy—you can read into that if you want, and you’ll be right—my house is not neat, and neither are my thoughts and feelings. It’s okay. Like I said, she’s my third child, and I’ve reached an uneasy peace with that. But for now, planning and packing and exerting what tiny little bit of control I can over the process of watching my baby get ready to leave me, well…it’s what I’ve got.
I know, she’s not leaving me. She’s not. She will call when something good happens, text when something bad happens, and FaceTime if she’s feeling generous. I will watch her social media, at least the accounts I know about, to glimpse pictures of her beautiful face and try to discern whether she is happy or not, whether those other people are friends or just folks in the room, whether she is sleeping enough, eating well, feeling comfortable in her own skin. Is that a real smile, or one for the ‘gram? I will find a way to read into every word of every text, every emoji, even her punctuation, or lack of it.
Does that sound crazy? I don’t think so. And if it does, well. Okay. Call me crazy.
To me, she is everything good — strong, smart, kind. Curious, fierce, compassionate. She is all heart, and she is my heart too. It’s hard to let your heart fly away, but here we are. There is chaos in the being, there is chaos in the leaving.
It’s today. Today is leaving day.