Have your daughter fill your car with all her belongings the day after her college graduation in June so she can drive home to Minnesota. Be prepared to rescue her when the car catches on fire somewhere in rural Georgia and everything in it—except her, her cell phone, and her best friend—is consumed by flames.
Be grateful for all the people who stop to help them, and be at peace with the fact that you will never learn how the fire started. Look on the bright side: there’s less to move to Los Angeles at the end of the summer!
(*Warning: do not initiate launch without ensuring you have adequate auto and homeowner’s insurance.)
Drive thirteen hours west with your daughter, from your small town in Minnesota to Denver, in her new-to-her, not-on-fire used Subaru that is packed with her minimal belongings.
Fill a cloth grocery bag with salty and sweet snacks for the road (including two apples; they’re healthy!) and throw in four books on CD from the library so you have plenty of listening options while you take turns driving.
In Denver, stay overnight with one of your best friends from high school, the one who accompanied you on a road trip home one summer during college after your newspaper internship in Mississippi, in your brother’s car (the gray one with a sun roof but no air conditioning. Reminisce about how your friend and you rarely had to stop for bathroom breaks on that trip, thanks to the wonders of evaporation).
During dinner with your friend, her husband, and her 13- and 9-year-old sons, instruct your daughter on the importance of hydrating and the heightened effect of drinking alcohol at increased altitudes. Then ignore your own warning, consume too much wine, and go to bed with a headache, worrying about the unknowns of the next few days.
Enjoy the scenery as your daughter drives through the Rocky Mountains. Consider, after you both smell something burning, that the brakes may be overheated. Realize, from the tightening of your daughter’s facial muscles and her death grip on the steering wheel, that she is experiencing post-traumatic stress from the June car fire.
Assure her that this car will not catch on fire. Tell her to pull over at the nearest exit and park in the McDonald’s lot so you can both use the restroom and give the car a rest. Discover she was riding the brake as you descended those steep mountain grades.
Regret not instructing her ahead of time on how to drive in the mountains. Wonder what other life hacks you’ve failed to impart during her 22 years of life. Take over the driving for a few hours and make a game, in your own mind, of attempting to coast down the entire western slope of the Rockies without once stepping on the overheated brakes.
Feel relief upon arriving in Las Vegas, even though it’s, oh my god, VEGAS—aka what you’d get if Times Square and Disney’s Epcot had a baby—because you will only pay $107 for a lovely room with a view of the “Eiffel Tower” and the “Arc de Triomphe,” the same rate you recently paid for a room at an AmericInn in Iowa with a view of a cornfield.
Go out for Mexican food at 9:30 at night and eat outside, in the 109-degree heat, to better enjoy the spectacle of fountains, crowds, and rampant capitalism. Drain your hard-earned margarita and go to bed with added worries about the car. Was it really the brakes overheating? What kind of odds would the Vegas bookies give you on the chances that your daughter would experience a second car fire ever again in her lifetime?
Put on your big girl pants for the second shift of the drive, into the heart of Los Angeles, a city you’ve only visited once as an adult (last fall, in fact, with your husband, when he attended a conference and you took Ubers and Lyfts everywhere).
Remind yourself you’re a good driver, despite the opinion of that person who honked at you as you tried to change lanes. Continue to model a capable, can-do attitude for your daughter, who does not enjoy driving in busy traffic, and yet has chosen to seek her fame and fortune (and hopefully, a job in the animation industry) in a city of four million people and almost six million cars.
Meet up with your daughter’s friend from college, Rachel, and Rachel’s mom/aunt/cousin posse to search for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that will also accept Rachel’s dog, Pascal (who is still in Ohio). Find an apartment that makes your daughter and Rachel beam, only to mourn with them upon learning that the management company will not rent to two earnest young Midwesterners who do not yet have jobs, even though Rachel’s mom is willing to cosign for the apartment.
Drown your sorrows at a brew pub your daughter has identified as a possible part-time employer (while she looks for a full-time animation job). Go to bed worrying you will have to leave town before your daughter has secured a place to live.
Meet George, a Midwestern transplant who came to LA to attend film school, then attended law school, and is now a landlord willing to rent a charming apartment to your daughter and Rachel that’s in the same neighborhood as the other one they liked and is even cheaper.
Accept this almost-too-good-to-be-true development but continue to look at a few other apartments in case the deal falls through with George, who is going out of town for the weekend. Drive to the brew pub you visited the day before so your daughter can drop off a resume with the manager, but stay in the car; you’re not that kind of mom! Drive up Mount Hollywood to the Griffith Observatory before the sun sets and take your daughter’s photo with the Hollywood sign in the background.
Notice the brakes squeak as you descend the hill, and notice your daughter wince each time. Go to bed relieved that you made an appointment for the next morning at the Subaru dealership.
Meet Harry at the dealership, who checks the brakes on your daughter’s car, gives the entire car an inspection, and reassures your daughter that her car is in excellent driving condition. Resist the urge to hug Harry when he refuses to charge you anything. Meet Rachel and her posse at the public library to print and sign copies of the lease before meeting Luigi, George’s building manager, who has rearranged his schedule to show up at the apartment on George’s behalf, accept the papers and payment, and give the keys to your daughter and Rachel.
Admire the industriousness of Rachel’s mom and aunt, who pull out a tape measure and record the dimensions of all the rooms and closets. Buy two kitchen chairs at the nearby Goodwill on the way to IKEA, where your daughter picks out a bed frame, a mattress, and bedding. Wheel the over-stuffed cart to your daughter’s car and discover you can’t make everything fit. Wheel the bed frame back to the customer service desk 10 minutes before closing and pay $29 to have it shipped to her apartment.
Help your daughter and Rachel unload their purchases at the apartment before returning to the Airbnb for one more night. Rejoice in the news your daughter has received via email from the brew pub: they want to interview her for a job. Before you fall asleep in the shared queen bed, wrap your arms around your daughter and kiss the top of her head, like you did when she was little.
Tell her how proud of her you are, and listen as she thanks you profusely for everything.
Enjoy the best sleep you’ve had all week.
Awake at 4:15, shower, and leave the Airbnb by 5 a.m. so your daughter can drive you to LAX before traffic gets too crazy. Hug her after she pulls the car up to the terminal, and tell her, “I’m so excited for you. You’re going to fly.”
“No, Mom, you are,” she will say, and you will both laugh.
Breeze through security and feel a swell of pride mixed with relief when she texts you half an hour later to say that the drive back was less stressful than she’d expected. Get teary eyed as you walk down the jetway to board the plane for Minnesota.
Take your seat next to the window and dab your eyes with your T-shirt occasionally as you fly over much of the same ground you covered on your mother-daughter road trip: the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the vistas of Utah, the Rocky Mountains, the plains of Nebraska.
Understand these are tears of exhaustion and of awe.
You did it.
You launched your oldest child into the world.
Rest. You’ve earned it.
8 Things to Remember on The Lonely Return To Your Empty Nest
College Care Packages From Home: 50 Great Ideas
Joy Riggs writes about parenting, history, and travel from her home in Northfield, Minnesota. She is the mom of a high school senior, a college sophomore, and a recent college graduate. Her writing has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Parent, Peacock Journal, Topology Magazine, and Mamalode. She blogs about her family’s adventures in making and appreciating music at My Musical Family. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.