It was easy to talk a big game during the weeks leading up to our daughter's move to a college 885 miles away.
"I'm thinking of it like an extra-long summer camp," I said to her. I wasn't freaking out about her leaving. I was excited for her to start this new chapter. Plus, we had been getting on each other's nerves with increasing frequency as the days passed.
This summer, our young high school graduate was ready to throw off the yoke of parental authority, while the parental authorities were not quite ready to relinquish it. After a few testy exchanges, I figured the distance might do us some good.
There are extensive checklists of what to buy for a dorm room; they reminded me of those lengthy baby registry lists. I remember getting a wipes warmer before my daughter was born, convinced that the shock of a cold wipe would be too much for a newborn's bum. All that warmer did was dry out the wipes. It got tossed in a pile of baby-related detritus. I wondered if, 18 years later, the scented-oil diffuser she was taking to college would meet the same fate.
We packed my brother's SUV with so much stuff that we had to contort ourselves to fit. I was still cool, calm and collected. I brought along a book about how parents can help their children succeed in college. The main idea was to let them figure it out by themselves. I'm on board with this, I thought. The author advised waiting until your child calls or texts you after you drop them off, instead of checking in first. I wondered how long that might take. That was an unsettling thought.
There were other disturbing thoughts I tried to quell. Earlier in the summer, we'd been riding our vaccination highs, hopeful that the COVID pandemic would soon be behind us. Then the delta variant struck. Cases surged and ICUs filled up, both here in Missouri and in my daughter's college's state. I've tried to take comfort in her university's high vaccination rate and mandatory masking policy, but the world still feels dangerous and unpredictable.
The closer we got to our destination, the shakier I felt. We stayed at an Airbnb the night before her move-in. I tossed and turned most of the night, and woke up with more anxiety and nerves than I anticipated. I guess I should have known this transition might be emotional.
When we drove onto the campus, we were greeted by lines of older students waving welcome signs and cheering the new arrivals. They looked so darn happy and excited. I guessed my daughter might also be thrilled when we left. That's what we wanted, I said to myself.
I was grateful for the sunglasses and mask covering much of my face.
They hid my tears.
We got busy with unloading and unpacking -- a welcome distraction. We met her roommate, who had brought her own scented-oil diffuser. We made a run to Target, got a late lunch, took a few pictures and hugged her before heading back to our Airbnb. I decided I needed to return the next day to buy some university gear. The truth is, I wasn't quite ready to leave.
I texted her the next morning before we stopped by her room. She had slept well and looked happy to be there; that was a relief. My anxiety was replaced with a strange sort of ache in my chest. I was leaving my child to learn how to thrive without us. I hugged her tightly one last time. I held her for a second longer. I said a prayer. Then, I let go.
It was a quiet ride to the airport. We were going to miss her much more than she would miss us. That's how it's supposed to be, I think. We had focused on the past 18 years, but her focus laid entirely ahead of her.
I was taken aback by the sharpness and intensity of my feelings as I waited for our flight back home. A preemptive loneliness settled over me and pangs of separation hit harder than I had ever experienced. Again, the mask caught my tears. I saw my husband wiping his own eyes a few times.
When we got back home, I walked by our daughter's bedroom.
It was cleaner than it had been all summer, but also emptier. I laid down on her bed and wondered how she was doing.
Then, she texted me first.