He Left for College; And Did I Die?

left for college

From the first day of his senior year in high school, it felt like a balloon was inside my chest and it was slowly inflating. That entire school year before my oldest left for college was so emotional and felt like one very long ramp leading up to D.O.D. (drop off day).

It was exciting and also scary watching him apply for colleges in the fall.

We listened as he expressed more and more of what he wanted to do and what his plans were for college.

As the marking periods flew by, the balloon in my chest was slowly enlarging. My shoulders slumped in sadness as I thought about our family traditions changing. I even forgot about the angsty teen years most kids go through when they push away and make us feel a little shut out.

Instead, I thought about how he wouldn’t be home the following year for his brother’s birthday and how it would be the first Halloween of his life that I wouldn’t see him.  I wondered how it would feel this year to celebrate my husband’s birthday with one child missing.

I couldn’t help but dwell on how it was the end of a treasured family dynamic in our home. It hurt to think about how it would never quite be the same again.

I never let on to him how my insides were aching. He already had enough on his mind and I knew it wasn’t fair for him to have to carry both of our emotional loads.

I just kept smiling in spite of the pressure in my chest growing.

Early spring brought college commitment day – the time when the big decision is made and parents can begin to visualize their child spending his or her days and nights at their chosen school. I imagined what it would be like when we went to see him for parent weekend. And then moments later, I would feel the balloon inflate further as I pictured daily dinnertimes without him.

By the time I got past senior prom (even though he didn’t go) and then graduation in June, the balloon was so full it felt like it would explode in my chest. It felt like it was pressing on my heart and it was painful.  I still kept it together though, after all, I was excited and proud that after eighteen years under my care, I managed to not only keep him alive, but he thrived. Imagine that.

Soon it was late summer and it was… Drop. Off. Day.

We all started out excited and keeping the conversations light. He was nervous, but I could tell he was eager to get going on this new adventure. His younger siblings weren’t feeling any balloons in their chests – they were focused on the bigger picture: where we would eat dinner later that night after dropping their brother off.

My husband and I could not speak to each other at all. One word and we knew we would lose our sh*t. We couldn’t even look at each other. We forced cheerful smiles on our faces and went through the motions of move-in, lingering until it was time for us to leave. It was that very last minute in the parking lot when we had to finally say “see you soon” and leave him there. I could cry just thinking about it now (and it was years ago!). It was heartbreaking. I realize that in the spectrum of how awful some of life’s heartbreaks can be, this was actually a hope-filled and happy heartache.

But it still felt like my insides were ripping out.

The balloon that had been slowly inflating to beyond its capacity, stretching and stretching and bulging, for nearly a year, finally exploded. All the mounting thoughts and feelings of fear, sadness, joy, anxiety, worry and pride blew right out of me (mostly by way of tears). Funny how you dream of this day when they are little and then you dread this day as it becomes reality. My husband and I went through a entire box of tissues in the first fifteen miles of our two-hundred mile trip back home. And his younger brother used one or two as well.

It’s very hard to let go of that part of your life that you had with your child nestled under your wing.

It’s  somehow shocking how you seemed to have only blinked your eyes in a busy eighteen-year parental blur and their childhood passed. It isn’t easy and does not feel natural after years of doing everything you can to protect them, to just let them go, drive away, and leave them to fend for themselves.

But guess what? I didn’t die. And neither did he.

They come home for holidays, school breaks and the summertime, but every time they come home, you know it’s only a matter of time until they will leave again. Just another countdown. But it’s actually ok. It’s more than ok. It’s GOOD. (And the grocery bill goes down a little too!)

Their growing independence and increasing confidence means we’ve done our jobs and besides, look how happy they are to be away (darn kids!). And hey, maybe someday they’ll be so independently successful that they’ll hook us up with retirement condos at the beach!

Fast forward a few years and I’ve said “see you soon” again and survived another D.O.D., as my second child left for college. This kid was so eager to spread his wings that he chose a college located 1,124 miles from home. Yes, that damn balloon filled and filled and exploded in my chest again. Yes, I cried. And yet again, I didn’t die. I survived and I’m proud of him and myself for handling the separation and the long distance challenge too.

It’s all good my friends …you’ll get through it, circle of life, natural progression, blah blah blah.

I have one more child to go (or maybe this one will stay?). College or not, the day will come when he will leave my nest too. And it will hurt, but I will live.

Like the famous quote, good parents give their children roots and wings.

For those of you who have a looming D.O.D. this summer and you feel the balloon in your chest slowly filling and it’s growing increasingly painful…I want you to know that although it hurts like hell when it explodes, you won’t die either.

Keep smiling (and try to think about parent weekends!). It may also be time to spend a few minutes thinking about the possibilities of what may bring you joy in your future as I thought about too.

– Marlene


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