I Didn’t Think My Heart Could Hurt Like This

My 12-year-old son is leaving for boarding school tomorrow. I just closed his bedroom door slowly and heard the click of the lock catching as if it were in surround sound. My hand froze on the round knob. I was too sad to walk away.

The last few weeks have been all about my son’s impending departure. Packing lists. Getting his blazer sleeves hemmed. Ordering new football sheets. Getting the right toothpaste. Meanwhile, I’ve also been dealing with his younger sister starting kindergarten, his twin sister starting sixth grade, and his little brother getting ready for another year of preschool. Time doesn’t stop around here for anyone, but it has all somehow slowed to his speed. The rest of us have been orbiting around him, as we have for years. His moods. His wants. His everything.

“Mom!? Mom!? Mom!? Where’s my charger?!”

“Mom?! Can I play Madden?”

“Mom, can I watch TV? Two episodes?”


mom and son
I know my son will be happy but me? I’m not so sure. (Twenty20 @samhollingworth)

My Son is Leaving Home Tomorrow

No matter where I am in the house or what I’m doing, I can never respond fast enough to avoid him shouting for me again. Now I can see the faint sound lines of his shouts fading away, dissipating in the air like lines on a comic strip. My frequent frustration has suddenly morphed into profound sadness and, truly, grief. I don’t want him to stop yelling for me. I want to be annoyed by it. Wait, where did it go?!!?

I flash back to being on bed rest for my twin pregnancy with him and his sister, the worry I felt the whole time, how I held my breath. When the twins were born, I never really exhaled. I still haven’t.

Yes, I know he’ll be okay at school. He’s the one who campaigned to go away, who sold me on the idea. And he’s right. He knows what he needs and he found the perfect place for him. I’m not worried about him being happy, which is a relief. I know he’ll be happy. Perhaps sad at times. Perhaps a bit overwhelmed. But happy? I’m sure of it.

Me? I’m not so sure.

Tonight we all went out for a goodbye dinner at his favorite pizza restaurant. We toasted him with sparkling lemonade and Sprite. He snapped at his sister. My younger daughter cried because she didn’t have exactly the same amount in her cup as her brother. All the usual stuff. We came home and had a Fudgie the Whale Carvel cake. My son opened the cards we gave him.

“You should have seen Mom crying when she wrote hers,” my daughter told him.

After I got all the other kids to bed, my son and I watched two episodes of “Young Sheldon,” our favorite way to bond.

In the middle of the second episode, while looking straight ahead, he quietly said, “I’ll miss you.”

I glanced over. Had I heard him wrong? He wasn’t even looking at me. Perhaps he couldn’t.

“Oh honey, I’ll miss you too.”

I walked him up to his room, waited in the hall while he went to the bathroom (apparently, no, he will never learn to shut the door), and then said goodnight. I leaned over to hug him. I couldn’t let go. Neither could he. We just stayed like that, clutching each other in the dark, silent.

Then he said, “This is nice.”

I tried to cry silently.

I finally pulled away, kissed his cheek, and gave him one last squeeze.

I didn’t think my heart could hurt like this. My whole body, actually. I don’t even feel like myself. I’ve spent the past two weeks in the back-to-school haze trying to stifle these feelings. After all, I’m not losing him for good. I don’t have take a job in another country or send my child to war or deal with a horrendous medical condition. I just have to say goodbye while he attends a posh boarding school that he’s privileged enough to attend. So why does it feel so gut-wrenching, like a piece of me is about to be surgically removed? I feel like I do after I’ve just lost someone I love. I feel the way I did the night before my hysterectomy.

My son’s duffel bags are piled up by the door. Pillows. A fan. Posters. Even a football carpet. His favorite books. Framed photos; today I spent an hour at CVS with my younger son printing out  and framing them. I want my son to have our family’s faces surrounding him, especially on the cold winter nights when he might feel lonely, when I certainly will.

I know I have three other kids at home. I know he’ll be back often. I know I’ll be able to Facetime him, email him and call him. This isn’t goodbye forever. But it’s definitely a new stage that feels uncomfortable and jarring. I won’t be there to quiz him on his vocab words this year. I won’t be able to remind him to brush his teeth. I can’t nag him to pick his clothes off the floor. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be better for us this way!

I know all of this. But right now, it just doesn’t help.

I ache knowing that this is the last night I’ll sit here at my computer, the only one awake in the house, my husband and all four kids sound asleep near me. From now on, there will only be three kids. I always feel a sense of low-grade anxiety when one of the kids isn’t home. Will I feel off constantly? I can only relax when all the kids are home and sleeping. How will I be able to feel that sense of motherly closure with one away?

I’ve been snapping at people I love. Crying at odd times. Eating like I’m trying to gain weight for a film role. Hurting. Mad at myself for being so weak. I know it’s an overreaction to a normal life event, a blessing even, a school that our family chose, but I just can’t stop feeling the pain. The loss.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be sitting right back here without him under my roof.

He’ll say goodnight to a roommate, a boy I haven’t even met.

I’ll close his door and hear the click of the lock but his room will be empty.

“This is nice.”

Yes, my love.

This has been so nice.

Good night.

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Zibby Owens is the creator and host of Webby-nominated podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” A mother of four and a writer herself, Zibby has contributed to Redbook, Parents, Family Circle, the New York Times online, Marie Claire and many other publications. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School, she currently lives in New York with husband, Kyle Owens, of Morning Moon Productions.

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