When my wife and I dropped our firstborn off at college, we’d anticipated feeling like everyone whose social posts described “leaving a piece of my heart.” Little did we realize we would also be leaving a piece of one of our younger children.
Although I’d spent the months (and if I’m being honest, some of the years) before the big goodbye dreading the very thought of it, the first few hours of the day itself were exceedingly smooth. We left home at our target time. We got through a notoriously trafficky area of Philadelphia on a weekday morning without incident.
Our move-in went very smoothly
When we arrived an hour early for Max’s noon check-in, the university was ready for him. Just after lunchtime, his room was basically set up, and the four of us who weren’t moving in started wondering whether we even needed the hotel we’d booked for the night.
Cracks began to appear in the facade of the exemplary college drop-off as we headed to lunch. Not me, though, and not Meredith. Inwardly we were both anxious and sad, but we’d been trying for months not to visit our feelings of loss on Max. He was going on an adventure, starting the transition from child to adult, spreading his wings.
We didn’t want our son to see that we struggled to leave him
We realized that his growing up was inevitable, and we tried to avoid making him feel responsible for our feelings. If one of us suddenly felt melancholy during some happy occasion or couldn’t sleep wondering what it would be like when Max moved out, we would share it with each other, but not the kids. At least, that was our goal.
The first sign of something being not quite right involved both younger kids. Twelve-year-old Elana had stepped on a bee the day before, and now her minor but legitimate wound was bothering her. Sam, 15, began to complain about stomach pain.
The first hint of trouble came during our walk across campus
The long walk across campus in the August heat rankled them both. Where we’d made excellent time at dawn driving from home to Happy Valley, our walk back to the dorm after lunch was far less efficient, she was limping, and he was doubled over. And although I was presenting as Mr. In Control of His Feelings, their complaining, coupled with the tick-tick-ticking of the clock on our time with Max, was getting to me.
Since some work was to be done at the dorm, we decided to split up for a couple of hours. Meredith stayed on campus, and I took Sam and Elana to our hotel. The three of us stopped to rest as Max, and his mom kept walking.
I watched the back of my firstborn disappear into the crowd without so much as a fist bump since we planned to spend time together the next morning. Hours later, I would recall that moment and hope it wouldn’t be our college drop-off goodbye.
I thought my kids were exaggerating to grab the attention
I’m not proud of the sanctimonious lecture I delivered at the hotel. I told Elana and Sam that their feelings about their brother moving to college needn’t sandbag the hours we had left as a party of five. I admit it; I thought they were exaggerating their discomfort to deal with their own emotions or to grab the spotlight for a little while on their brother’s big day. It became clear how wrong I was within the hour—Mea culpa.
Elana moved past her injured instep. But Sam’s pain never subsided, and nothing we tried relieved him. When he described the pain a certain way, it reminded me of my hernia years before. I realized he needed medical attention.
There are two urgent care centers in State College, Pennsylvania, and on that day, neither could provide care urgently, which left us with the hospital emergency room.
After several hours in the ER, we knew two things: Sam needed an appendectomy as soon as possible, and he couldn’t have it at the only hospital in town because the lone surgeon on duty that August Saturday evening preferred not to operate on a pediatric patient. Sam is 15, sure, but he’s 5’10” and 160 pounds. The nurse who broke the news pointed out the insanity.
We hoped that the surgeon declining to operate meant the situation was not that serious. We asked questions to that effect. Would we have enough time to return to New Jersey and have the surgery? No. Would the medications they gave him allow a different surgeon to come in on the next shift? No.
Was surgery — and very soon — the only option? Yes.
“And did we understand correctly that the only surgeon here simply won’t take out his appendix?” Also, yes.
Still reeling from the urgent care debacle, we couldn’t believe that the only available emergency room agreed that we had a bona fide emergency, then told us that someone else should resolve it.
Our oldest was settling into college as all hell broke loose
Before everything went crazy, Max asked us to let him spend the evening settling in and exploring without us. After a few hours on campus, he’d connected with some guys and gone to a minor league baseball game. He ignored us when we tried calling and texting to tell him that Sam needed emergency surgery and he and I would be leaving town soon.
He couldn’t have known there was an emergency and figured whatever we were calling about, we could tell him at breakfast. My optimistic side spun it as Max showed us that we didn’t need to worry about him making friends and getting acclimated to his new life. That’s when I revisited the image of Max slipping away into the crowd ahead of me.
Finally, we reached him and brought him to the hospital, where our family had a big hug that had to last until our planned visit in six weeks. By then, the day had long since transitioned from Max’s college move-in day to Sam’s emergency surgery day. So we hugged, we said some things, and took a few pictures. Then, instead of the four of us leaving a dorm without Max, he left a hospital without us, and we had work to do.
On this day of firsts, lasts, and ill-timed illness, Sam had his first IV. And at 11 PM, that IV line was being capped off and wrapped in gauze so we could drive him 100 miles to the nearest hospital that would perform his appendectomy. We would arrive at 1:30 AM, having been awake for 20 hours.
My other son’s health scare supplanted the dread of leaving my son
All the dread I felt about leaving Max at college had been supplanted by dread about Sam’s health scare. The effort not to guilt trip Max about my feelings became an effort to simultaneously keep Sam calm and not let on that I was anything but calm.
Then, of course, I had to drive 100 miles on unfamiliar, extremely dark, and notably mountainous roads at the end of what had already been quite a long day. Sam, ever the theater kid, remarked what a great story the whole experience would be once it was behind him.
Sam came through the surgery just fine. When it was over, he felt better for the first time since he started complaining of a stomachache on the way to lunch. Even accounting for this stop to deposit Sam’s appendix in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the four of us still living at home were back before dark the day after the move-in.
Over the years, I invested a lot of energy picturing what it would be like to drop Max off at college. He was born in 2004, and I likely started using the image of him growing up and moving out as a self-torture device as early as 2005.
I thought about college drop-off for a long time, and it had never looked like this
I ran a lot of simulations, so to speak. In all the scenarios, I was in the extreme between inconsolable and inconsolable. Exactly zero of my imaginary versions took place in a hospital. By this standard, what happened when the day arrived was unthinkable.
But the situation was a gift. We joked that Sam made a kind of self-sacrifice to spare his parents from the grief of the college send-off or maybe to provide our family with some grade-A wedding toast material. If nothing else, it will make Sam’s and Elana’s eventual drop-offs seem easier by comparison.
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