A while back, our two oldest children left for college one week apart. Jarring, yes. And yet, I remember thinking, I’m not upset enough. It reminded me of when I was child and wanted to cry at the funeral of a distant relative because everyone else was.
July rolled into August. Suitcases filled, rooms emptied of posters and books and CDs, and while I found myself looking longer and harder at my children, I was still not weepy. Nor was I second-hand weepy around the mothers who couldn’t get through a discussion about the coming goodbye.
I was even a tiny bit more cheerful as September came into view. No more details, no more shopping. No more saying, “Did you,” at the start of every sentence.
One brilliant green and yellow morning, I listened to the last movement of Beethoven’s sixth, a piece my violist-daughter and I adore, and one I’d watched her perform the previous summer. I thought about that lilt in the beginning, the part she really loved, and wondered, where did it actually begin? I went to her room to ask her, and got halfway. In a week, I would not be able to do this.
I still remember my face getting cold, and the feeling of being hollow. And did I cry hard enough to make my best friend come over in her pajamas? Yes, I did.
As new parents write of lost identity when babies come, veteran parents write often of disorientation when babies go. What of the next relationship we ask ourselves, when we aren’t yet those people we will be for each other?
I believe it is this canyon, between “were” and “will be,” a thing we sense before we observe, that makes the prospect of separating a tiny bit like a loss. And it’s talked about that way, in terms of what is over for good. There is grief over truncated moments, regret over unrealized joys and sadness over endless “lasts.” There is halting in the hallway, there are cold faces. There are thoughts of who will we be instead of us?
It wasn’t until my own melancholy subsided, that I began to experience the answer to this, and it wasn’t something I would have understood at all had someone tried to explain it before August.
But it is this: my relationships with our four young adult children, rich and reciprocal, are more rewarding today than at any other time because today, they demand more of me as a person than a parent.
They are different people, but share a tolerant, kind view of the world which they require of those they trust. More than once they have made me examine my heart and change it, close my mouth and open my mind, discuss hard truths, question wrong assumptions, update my views.
I’ve started more than one conversation with, “Help me change my attitude about something.”
And I’ve never found it so easy to laugh at myself.
Until recently, our daughter lived 650 miles away from us in Cleveland. There, she directed a program which offers violin lessons to inner city children. Small children. Children who arrive tired and cranky and are more interested in my daughter’s earrings than the piece upon which she must focus their little attention spans.
During a visit, she took me to tour the facility. When she left to take a call her boss resumed the tour, explaining the programs they offered and the value my daughter has brought to them.
“We love her,” said this man who has not known her as anything but a kind, talented, professional woman. “She’s a natural.”
Later , we shopped for groceries and prepared dinner and talked in her kitchen about things we thought about, worried over, looked forward to, dreamed about. We had as much fun as two grown women can have when one is no longer – nor yet – dependent on the other. She is married with good cookware, and strives to achieve intellectual, physical and spiritual balance. Today, we are more alike than we aren’t, despite the twenty-plus years between us. We share a mother daughter relationship, but we have adult lives in common.
My August hallway question is long behind me but I have learned this: children leave, and they will travel as far as they must to become their individuated selves. But then, whether they move down the street or text us from their living rooms across the country, they come back, not in need of answers or approval, but with experiences to share, in want of comparison, of commonality.
We know their stories. And now, they ask to know ours.
I hope parents who are recovering from their own August hallway moment will let the memories come . Remember the times you’ll always cherish, remember the times you wouldn’t revisit for anything. And, be joyous about times to come, when love will grow right along with you, connect you, long after August has come and gone.
Susan Bonifant is an essayist, novelist and mother of four grown children who writes about life after the last college drop off. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, The Concord Monitor and PurpleClover.com.
Susan lives with her husband and writer-cat, Gus, in Hopkinton, NH. Visit her blog, “Worth Mentioning,” at atticview.blogspot.com.