“When do you go back to school?” I asked Jaelin the other day; half-sorry summer was coming to an end, half-happy that I’d soon have my house back, free of my sons’ wayward friends and their abandoned Chinese food containers.
“Saturday. Milan goes tomorrow.”
“Wow. How did that happen?”
“I know, right?”
“I’m so jealous,” I said. “I wish I could go back and do my first day of college over again.”
As Jaelin’s little sister takes off for Syracuse and Noah, the youngest of the old neighborhood squad, moves into Monmouth, as posts of moms “feeling emotional,” pop up all over Facebook, I start to get a little misty-eyed myself.
My parents dropped me off at Shippensburg State College in the fall of 1975. I still remember the white jeans and blue top I painstakingly picked to wear for my college debut. I still remember watching my parents walk out the door after I made my bed with leftover linens. And I still have the little note that my mother slipped inside my favorite novel, appropriately titled, Leaving Home.
There was never a question that I would go to college. My older sisters had gone off one-by-one the two years prior. I couldn’t wait. I was ready to make my own way in the world, find new friends, live without parental rules and maybe even learn a thing or two along the way.
The anticipation and excitement of a new life looming is a true gift.
But when I was left alone in Harley Hall, all I felt was a great big uh-oh.
That’s what happens with new beginnings. You feel the fear and you either give into it or you just swallow the hiccup, take a deep breath, walk across the hall and say, “Do you guys like the Beatles?”
Which, of course, is as much of an uh-duh question as asking someone today if they like Kendrick Lamar.
The four years go by, fast and furiously. You have more fun than you ever thought your already fun-filled life could hold. You meet the lifelong friends you never dreamed would fill the high school hole in your heart. You experiment. You create. You stumble. You fall. You get back up. You do the walk of shame. And then you do the walk of pride on your graduation day.
Contrary to popular belief, there is life after college and time ticks on. Finally realizing that your college romance was but a lapse of discretion, you fall in real love. You get married. You have a kid. And then another. And another.
And then, just like that, you wake up to the day that your own child is leaving for college.
You load the car and drive him down the turnpike, or fly with him to California. And you lug the luggage and set up the TV and haul the Bed, Bath and Beyond bags and organize drawers and smooth down sheets and say, “This mattress feels pretty firm!” when the sag is visible.
And then it’s time to go and you leave your jock of a son with a brainiac roommate from China who, if he knows a word of English, is choosing to keep it close to his vest. And you say, “This is great! If you go to Beijing, you’ll have someone to stay with!”
You want to tell him to take advantage of every day he has. To work hard but to leave time for fun. You want to tell him to do laundry regularly and eat healthily. To be open to new experiences and be friendly to new people. To play intramurals and join the animation club. To keep his room clean and remember where you put the extra toothpaste. You want to tell him that it’s OK to change his major and not OK to flunk a class. To knock on the door of the pretty girl across the hall and not to sit alone in the dining hall. To go to football games and embrace school spirit. To keep his hair short, his arms tattoo-free and his beard trimmed. You want to tell him that you’re proud of him and that you love him. You want to tell him to call. To text. To e-mail. About anything. Anytime. Even for money.
And so you do.
And then you go.
And then you cry.
You cry because you’re happy. You cry because you’re sad. You cry because you’re old. You cry because he’s young. You cry because you know that he’s going to drink too much, study too little and have his heart broken.
And there’s nothing you can do about it.