From our son’s room, the deep rumbling bass of techno music mixes with their laughter. It’s the night before he will move out of our house and into his dorm. Of course he’s left all his packing until now, but what else is new? Actually, what’s new is that his 16-year-old sister has come to his assistance this time, not me or his father. All I’ve done is print out a handy college packing list from the Internet, what to bring, and what to leave home. I hand it to our daughter, then step back.
Okay, I admit it. That’s always been the hardest part of parenting for me, knowing when to step in, when to step back, that balancing act of protection and independence. “I can do it myself, Mommy,” my daughter said at three, snatching her hand from mine right before she toppled down the slippery front stairs to split open her eyebrow. But you hear it everywhere: you have to let your children fall sometimes, you have to let them fail. Otherwise, how will they make their own way? If not on the threshold of adulthood, when will you let your children act on their own?
And this is perfect. Tonight, I can step back, knowing both children are taking responsibility in their own ways, that they are sharing a moment, complementing one another’s strengths and needs.
Theirs has not always been the easiest relationship. Twenty months apart, they have been too close, contentious, sniping, sometimes allied, more often opposed. But listen to them now. The timbres of there are voices so similar, from outside my son’s room, it’s hard to tell the two apart, and they’re laughing uproariously, both of them, the one who will leave tomorrow and the one who will be left behind.
As they work at it, I’m trying to breathe through my own distress, as I drink a glass of wine and retreat to my study. My partner, their father, is playing a game of chess online. I hear his emotion as he mutters to his distant opponent. Whatever you’ve heard about empty nest syndrome and the tumult of this huge transition, you won’t know what it is, until it’s yours.
This moment has placed a heavy heel on my solar plexus and borne down. As I try to take in great lungfuls, the air seems to lack sufficient oxygen, as if I were in the Alps or Andes, feeling just as disoriented and breathless as I would on those heights.
In the next room, I hear the sounds of furniture moving around, drawers opening and closing, brief bickering over what to listen to next, then the thump thump thump of their choice. I try to keep the beat from interfering with my own heart.
“Which suitcases can we use?” My daughter comes out to ask. “Where are those single sheets you bought? You got two sets, right? That’s what the packing list says he’s supposed to have. Did you get any risers? That way he can store his stuff under his bed.” When I say that you can’t use risers on bunk beds, she just shrugs and goes down to the basement for the suitcases.
My son’s door is open as I walk past. He has a pile of neatly folded T-shirts on the bed in front of him; the rest of his room is in complete disarray. He’s a big guy, but he’s dwarfed by the drifts of clothes around him. It really wasn’t so long ago that I dressed him.
“Out,” he says when he sees me. I don’t say anything, just turn and walk back to the study.
They’re at it for hours, taking a break only for some dinner, then heading back to his room.
By the time they finish packing, my son has taken the contents of his room, all his old books, his old toys and puzzles, years of baseball pants and shirts, video games, CDs, school notebooks, the accumulation of his whole childhood and disgorged everything into the living room, all except the packed suitcases he will take with him.
“Wait a minute!” I cry in distress. “What’s all this?”
“I don’t need any of it anymore,” he says.
“But you can’t leave it here! Hold on now. What am we supposed to do with all this?” His father comes to stand beside me, drawn by the rising tones, and takes in the mounds of stuff newly located in our living space. Our son looks at us and shrugs, goes back to his room to sleep his last night in an all but empty room.
I start to go through the things he says he no longer needs. Among the items I collect in bags for the local fire victims, I find the shirt he bought on our last shopping outing, just two months earlier. My daughter says, “he told me he wasn’t really a red shirt kind of guy. He tried, but discovered he really wasn’t.”
“Not a red shirt kind of guy, huh?”
“But it’s brand new.”
“That’s what I told him,” she says.
“Did he say goodbye to you?” I ask her. We plan to leave early, before she wakes.
“Not really,” she says, “sort of, but no, not really.” She smiles anyway.
We arrive at our son’s dorm before the other two boys with whom he will share this new phase of his life. This triple is not much bigger than a pantry. He chooses the lower bunk, and we begin to unpack his two suitcases into the small dresser and armoire.
“Wow,” I say. “These shirts are folded so beautifully. You have to give it to her, your sister did an excellent job!”
“I folded all those. She showed me how, but it wasn’t that hard,” he says.
“Let’s get your bike out of the car,” his father says. “Where’s the lock?”
We look all over, but we can’t find it. It’s not where I would put it, with his tool kit and laundry stuff. Just as his father is about to make the trip down to the local hardware store to buy a new lock, our son says, “Hold on. Let me check the packing list,” because packed in with the second load of his things is the list I had printed out, and which our daughter had carefully checked, each item on it labeled with an A or a B, for the two different suitcases.
“Don’t worry,” our son tells us, pulling the lock from the bottom of the second suitcase with a flourish, “I got it!” And he does. He’s got it.
Just then the boys and their families arrive, with their clothes and books and posters and all the other stuff they’ll need for their freshman year in college. Pretty soon, it gets too crowded in their small room, so we say goodbye and step out.
Amanda Yskamp’s work has appeared in such magazines as Threepenny Review, Hayden Review, caketrain, Redivider, and The Georgia Review. She lives on the 10-year flood plain of the Russian River, where she teaches writing from her online schoolhouse.