“Mom, SERIOUSLY? Why are you crying?”
My son was shocked to see my tears as I pulled into the airport departure lane, dropping him off for his flight back to college for second semester.
But instead of bolting for the curb to avoid the awkward moment, he set his duffel bag down and opened his arms wide. “Come here,” he chuckled softly.
“This is why I’m crying,” I sobbed, as he smothered me in his giant man-embrace.
“You’ve grown up so much in the past few months, and I’m proud of the man you’re becoming and it makes me miss you in a whole new way,” I said.
“Mmmmm K,” he replied with a goofy face, reverting back to the boy I knew.
“Keep making good choices, please,” I reminded him anxiously as my mind swirled with some of the crazy stories he’d shared during Christmas break that painted a much-too-vivid picture of the actual reality of his life at college.
This goodbye was different from the one in August, when we dropped him off at college for a brand-new chapter of his life and ours. That was a monumental goodbye—a milestone moment signifying the end of an era—full of hopes, dreams, and the anticipation of the unknown.
The second semester departure contained the anticipation of the “known”—a recognition of his new reality and the good and bad that came with it.
With this goodbye, I knew he was going back to a dorm room infested with bed bugs. His color-coordinated, super-cozy down comforter and bedding that I’d tucked around his bunk in August as my last-ditch attempt to nest for my child had been quarantined since finals, leaving him with a flimsy vinyl mattress and “temporary bedding” which consisted only of ratty sheets.
His rug and futon were also gone, all in the hopes he stay in his dorm room without waking up covered in the bed bug welts he’d been enduring since mid-October.
With this goodbye, I knew he was going back to friends he’d made in his hall but that I’d seen way too many Snap Stories about on Snapchat. Friendly-but-wild kids who seemed more interested in partying, stairwell surfing, bonfire-jumping, and obnoxious-pranking antics than studying.
With this goodbye, I knew he was going back to a grueling academic schedule for a brand-new major—a program he transferred into mid-semester after a 180-degree shift in his future career plans. He’d already been so overwhelmed with the stress of maintaining a 3.0 for his scholarship, and I knew this semester would present even more of a challenge.
With this goodbye, I knew he was heading off with less than $25 in his bank account. He’d managed to blow through his graduation gift money in a few short months, and now he’d need to find a part-time job if he wanted any spending money. (His hopes for a spring break trip to look forward to were no longer a possibility.)
With this goodbye, I knew that the glitter of the college newness had worn off. The days would be shorter, the Montana weather would be colder, and the glory of the holiday break consisting of four weeks at home surrounded by nothing but sleeping, eating, and hanging out with family and his childhood friends would make it even tougher for him to readjust.
With this goodbye, I also knew he’d survive and grow, just like he did first semester. I wasn’t by his side, and I didn’t need to be. The change in his maturity didn’t just come from the passing of time—it came from facing the day-to-day reality and challenges of being independent at college.
It wasn’t always pretty—it wasn’t always stuff that warmed a mama’s heart to picture in her head—but whether it was exciting stuff or tough stuff, it was real life. His real life. And his “real life” stuff was turning my son into an even more wonderful version of himself.
With this goodbye, I realized the gap between who he once was and who he was becoming was growing wider. Because I’ve felt how the distance between us is more than just miles, it’s also in the reality of me no longer being part of his daily existence to watch it all unfold.
The boy I dropped off in August had become a young man I was sending back in January.
And this time, when I said goodbye to my son for his second semester of college, my heart was missing them both.