It was that time of year again, when kids go off to college. I was witnessing hysterical mothers all around me, crying at Starbucks, breaking down on the treadmill at my gym. I know that particular meltdown. It’s different from, “I can’t pay the bills,” or “We are about to lose our house,” or “I can no longer fit into my fat pants!”
My son left last year. I was surprised and quietly proud of keeping it all together. I was more focused on the preparation of it all. I had seen the college, loved the college, felt quite cozy by then in the low-rent Marriott where I stayed near his college. I bought him some clothes I thought he might need that go beyond his typical wardrobe of boxers and T-shirts. His father went all out and bought him the most high-tech computer I’d ever seen, a computer so sleek I thought it might have transporting powers. No one had given much thought to the actual packing; so his stepdad—maybe it was the Boy Scouts, or his yearlong stint in the army—somehow managed to pack everything this kid owned and eighty pounds worth of books into two suitcases.
I had attended a workshop at his high school just to be sure I was emotionally prepared for my firstborn to move out, move on, and start his life. The small windowless room above the school library was filled with red-faced women. Sobbing. A few were hysterical. I felt nothing but embarrassment for them. We went around the room to discuss our feelings. One woman couldn’t get any words out, the monitor kept telling her to take her time. By now I just wanted to flee. Her kid was going to a college four miles from her house and not even leaving his room! When it got to me, I was handed a wand (which was really a fat oak branch); some ritual the monitor felt necessary for us women. I tapped the branch on my knee. “Frankly, it’s about time. When I went off to college, my mother didn’t even notice. She realized I was gone about two years later when she was looking for one of my favorite jackets.” I passed the wand. They all stared at me, a stare I was so familiar with by now. It said, “Who is the freak and who let her in ... and who the hell is her kid?”
Here is the thing. I have what is called DRR. Delayed Reaction Response. For example, when I had my second wedding, a big weekend affair, followed by an elaborate honeymoon, I didn’t really realize I was married until this man I married referred to me as his wife at a work function. I looked around, then behind me for this wife, until realizing that was me.
Then, when the twins came along, I just thought they were the cutest little things, all dolled up in Ralph Lauren dresses friends had sent. I would glance over at them in between bites of chocolate bricks, while my mother cared for them. Though she was meant to come for the weekend she stayed ten months. Until finally she lost it and hit the Nyquil. “These are your children!! Stop with the chocolate, your work, and pretending you don’t have two more kids. I already did this.” When she left, I had to accept they were mine, but I didn’t give up the chocolate. You would think I weighed five hundred pounds, but weirdly I’m considered underweight. I call this stress thinning.
Back to my son. When he left this year, now a seasoned veteran as a sophomore, there wasn’t much for him to do but have his stepdad pack for him again. He was so excited to be returning, and now apparently to a much better dorm, which can only mean one thing: its coed. Somewhere in the summer, since I saw very little of him as he has friends and wanted to spend more time with his bio-dad, my DDR kicked in. I was a sobbing fool. He wasn’t even around. But I would look at his empty bedroom, or the gift cards his sisters would carefully construct out of macaroni shells and stick in the mail box like they would actually be sent somewhere, and break down. “MY BABY!” I would wail from my bed, eating bags of chocolate chips, in my pajamas with no intention of ever getting out of them. No one was home so no one heard me. And frankly no one could comfort me anyway. Two days later, I pulled myself together long enough to take him to dinner the night before his departure. We talked and laughed about movies, books, bad TV shows, and politics. He was so optimistic, poised, excited about where life was taking him and how he could better the world. He was a grown-up. He wasn’t my baby. For all those years I could detect his pain or sadness before he could, and comfort him; now he could see it in me. He leaned over the booth and hugged me. “I’ll be alright, Mom. You don’t have to worry.” I could feel tears welling up; and we got back home so he could plan a party in six minutes, which he somehow pulled off. He left, and I never know when he leaves because it’s always past 10 p.m. after I fall asleep.
A few things I miss about him:
- His uncanny ability to text fifty people in ten seconds, grab a bag of nachos, and have a party somewhere.
- His smile and spirit that surely were god given because they certainly didn’t come from me.
- His utter lack of caring about clothes; yet he loves to look good and somehow manages to pull together outfits from his closet I really only give cursory glances to.
- His fedora.
- How he always seems to know the right moment when to hug me.
- All of his buddies hanging around the house. How we would sit around the kitchen table and talk endlessly about how weird girls were.
- His penchant for drinking orange juice by the gallon then putting the empty container back in the fridge.
- His ability to fix my computer in two minutes whenever I thought it had crashed for good. (I’d wail, “My life is over!!” He’d waltz in, roll his eyes, and fix it.)
- Our hours spent in line at In-N- Out, arguing the merits of animal style (his choice) versus what is actually on the damn menu (mine).
- How he would lecture me on issues like girl trafficking and black holes and how Star Trek: The Motion Picture had it all wrong and was completely lame.
- His lanky way of moving, and despite his being tall and thin, his ability to knock anything over without noticing. (We share a kind of head-in-the-clouds grace.)
- How he hated team sports—almost anything involving the outdoors—and refused to learn to ride a bike. I think he drove a car before he finally got on a bike.
Though there are so many memories, perhaps the one that stands out most is when he was seven. His future stepdad (I will refer to him as FH, future husband) and I took him on a cross-country trip. Despite the fact we had no reservations anywhere, we kept ending up in suites practically for free. My husband says I have good hotel karma. Maybe in a former life I lived in a grass hut. At the Grand Canyon, I worked my magic, or karma, and we had a two-bedroom suite on the rim of the Canyon. My son loves the hotel life and was just beside himself. This would be one of many hotel experiences but for him it was magical to look out his very own window and see inside that crazy canyon.
That night at dinner in a kind of cowboy diner with animal heads on the wall, there was a fly that kept buzzing around our heads when we were trying to eat our ox burgers, so my FH grabbed the fly and ate it. My son’s jaw dropped. He wasn’t sure how to react, as in, did he really just do that? Can you do that? Is this person mad? My boy ran off and onto the patio to a group of complete strangers and told them what happened, pointing to FH as though he were a child abductor. I went out and collected him, explaining to the perplexed family, “I’m sorry, my fiancé eats insects all the time. Something he learned in Korea while in the army.”
“Mom! The larvae! Won’t the fly lay eggs in his stomach and then they’ll all come buzzing out of his mouth?”
“No, honey. I once ate a moth in my soup. Nothing happened, but I didn’t have to pay the bill. FH was just trying to give us a little peace and not make a scene while we ate our ox. Plus where would he have put the dead thing? It’s ecologically perfect.”
“Are you still going to marry him?”
“Yes. He will really come in handy during ant season.”
My little guy hugged me, then sat on FH’s lap with a new kind of respect.