On the day my eldest son left for college, my youngest son got his first zit. This had to be some kind of sign, I thought. Time marches on or some such thing. Maybe this was God’s little joke aimed at a mom whose “baby” is no longer a baby and whose first child was flying the coop. If so: not funny.
So many words have been spilled on this very subject – the first kid heading off to college – that it feels unoriginal to be thinking about it, let alone writing about it. And yet it pierces uniquely.
In the months leading up to Jonah’s departure, I’d find myself crying at unpredictable moments. I’d wander past his closed door, hear the sounds of his guitar playing on the other side, and think: Starting in September that room will be empty and silent. Cue the tears.
As Jonah and I made our cross-country sojourn from the San Francisco Bay area to Brown University in Providence, leaving his two younger brothers (17 and 13) at home with my husband, strange coincidences ensued.
Jonah has always had out-of-the-mainstream interests. Two examples: he became borderline-obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte in middle school and is endlessly fascinated by 19th-century French history; and his favorite musician is Mark Knopfler, known mostly by people my age as the lead-man and guitarist of the 80’s band, Dire Straits.
A couple of nights before we left home, Jonah played his guitar at an open-mic night at a music club in our hometown of Mill Valley. The song he played was Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” – a fairly obscure choice for non-Knopflerphiles.
A few days later, our rental car stuffed to the brim with Target purchases, we stopped for lunch on our way to Providence. The restaurant was playing music, 60’s Motown-type stuff. Then out of nowhere, we heard the sound of Mark Knopfler’s voice: it was “Romeo and Juliet.” I burst into tears, sending our alarmed waiter scurrying away.
When we got to the Brown campus on Friday, the very first kid we met was a history-obsessed young man from North Carolina with a special passion for Napoleon who, out of a class of 1500 freshmen, also happens to be in Jonah’s history seminar of 20 kids.
On Sunday I attended a parent seminar entitled “Saying Goodbye, Letting Go, and Learning to Live with a Brown Student.” Much of the discussion centered on being supportive without being intrusive. The faculty members and upperclassmen running the seminar did a few skits, re-enacting phone calls that typically occur between parents and children during the first few weeks of freshman year.
As one faculty member, playing “Mom,” phoned her “son” with a variation on the “you don’t call, you don’t write” complaint, parents in the audience laughed nervously. You mean they really won’t call? We were encouraged to give our kids some space; we were reassured that they’d get in touch eventually; we were instructed to let them try to solve roommate issues on their own.
As I sat in the crowded auditorium, I felt slightly better. I realized that while this experience was specific and personal, it was also universal. And it’s exactly what is supposed to happen. We raise our kids from babies to toddlers to children to adolescents to young adults, and then they leave us to begin their own lives. It’s only logical: if they never develop the skills to live independently, we haven’t done our job. Who wants to suck at being a parent?
I didn’t feel ready for Jonah to go. I don’t feel like I had enough of his company during those short 18 years. I wish I had more time to see him interact with his brothers at the dinner table; to observe his thought process as he works through a research paper or a discussion about politics; to listen to him play guitar along with Mark Knopfler. I simply loved having him around, and the loss feels huge.
So as I watched him walk back toward his dorm before I left, his roommate’s arm slung around Jonah’s shoulder in a protective and brotherly way, of course I cried. But eventually, I had to drive away and to fly back home.
After all, I need to help Aaron with his college applications. And maybe we’ll see if we can do something about Henry’s zit, like introduce him to face soap. Life goes on. As for Jonah, he can’t get rid of me that easily: I just figured out how to use Skype.
Abby Margolis Newman has been a freelance writer for almost 20 years. She has written for The New York Times, Parenting, Working Mother, and Scholastic, among many other publications. Her earlier career incarnations include working as a film producer and as an events planner; currently, she is a student in UCLA’s College Counseling program. But in reality, she has spent the vast majority of her time over the last 20 years mothering three boys. She lives in Mill Valley, California. Follow her on Twitter @newmaniacs