I stood there on the grass outside the auditorium where the Convocation had just finished. It was college drop off day and parents were still making their way out the doors and down the steps to the refreshment tables where I waited. Students streamed out the side doors of the auditorium like a school of minnows, a silvery blur in the dappled sunlight of late afternoon.
There were four hundred odd students and more than twice that number of parents and family members trying to find each other. I thought of cattle being separated from their young during branding, and how when it’s over and the pens are opened, each cow miraculously finds her calf out of the hundreds milling about.
I began to move towards the swarm of students, and noticed a mother with tears starting to leak out of her eyes as she gazed at her daughter. Her arms were fluttering around like wings, fingers reaching out to pluck at the girl and then falling back to her sides, as if resisting the urge to grab her child and never let go. I passed a stony-eyed boy in stilted conversation with his father, willing this parting to be over, anguish visible in every line of his body. I went by clusters of students forming fledgling friendships, awkwardly introducing their parents.
I weaved my way in and out of these people, searching for my son. I wasn’t bleating for him in panicked desperation, didn’t feel like sand was leaking out of the hourglass.
When I reached his side I realized what differentiated me from the other parents. Instead of the typical loss or grief of launching a child, what I was feeling was relief. My son was finally in one place, where I could reach him by phone. Where family could reach him by car. He would be sleeping in the same room for nine months. He was surrounded by peers, and about to embark on nothing more dangerous than academia for most of the day.
We stood there making small talk with his roommate and his parents while thoughts of my son’s exploits during his gap year drifted through my mind:
When he was in Africa and he heard a hippo grazing one night, so close it rustled the side of his tent. Or when he was working in a rhino sanctuary and the group of Army Rangers he was with came across some poachers. Or when he stumbled upon a family of elephants and foolishly stopped to take photos.
Or when his ex South African Special Forces boss made him train with those Army Rangers, pulling boulders from the earth to use as weights. My heart stopped when I saw a photo of my boy in an open jeep, surrounded by indigo colored men holding AK47s, his white skin like a blemish in the dark palette. And when I saw my eighteen-year-old tagged on Facebook with thirty-something Peace Corps volunteers, empty beer cans littering the ground around them.
I panicked over Christmas when he went to Zanzibar but didn’t bother to get a different phone for those few days so he couldn’t call. And then I saw more photos on Facebook of him jumping off cliffs into water with tawny skinned children, showing off his flips and spins and corks that he had practiced on our trampoline for hours and hours. When he could have hit his head. Or gotten sick from the water. Or been robbed. Or worse. Or when he trekked to Annapurna Base Camp alone, saying to me over the phone a million miles away, “It’s fine Mom. There are tea houses along the way. I’m sure I’ll meet people.”
Or when he fell in love with a twenty-four year old British girl he met in Goa, lying to her about his age as they traveled by train through India together. To magical places with exotic names, places I’ve been that romance the soul and make you want to become a Sadhu. Places like Jodphur and Jaiselmeer. Where you drink tea bought from chai wallahs at train stations, passed up through the window in unfired clay bowls that you throw on the tracks when you finish, shattering them into the red dust from whence they came.
The night before my son was due to fly home from Katmandu, I received several cryptic and terrifying emails about a cigarette-burned, needle-tracked ex Nepalese mafia man and his wife on the run with whom my open-hearted son shared his hotel room.
When I couldn’t be certain he would be on the plane that I met at JFK the next day. All of these thoughts passed through my mind as we chatted with others on the lawn of this small liberal arts college, set in a landscape that looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. I gazed at my son, impossibly young, and yet old at the same time, and saw my thoughts reflected in his eyes. “I’m safe,” they said.
Ashley Collins is mother to three grown children and currently lives in Connecticut with the pets they left behind. She graduated from Stanford University in 1987 with a BA in Anthropology. Her first job was with Vogue Magazine, having failed to realize National Geographic had moved their editorial offices to Washington D.C. before arriving in New York. She has traveled extensively following her ex-husband’s career, as well as her own wanderlust, and lived in New York City, London and Seattle prior to moving to Connecticut. She currently writes a blog about her family and animals, and is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters and horses. She also compete as an equestrian show jumper. Find her on Facebook and Instagram.