I had memorized every word the night before, and it would be perfect. By 2:19 a.m., I knew exactly what I would say and do when we dropped off our oldest son at college the following day.
I would stand before my child, like the Virgin Mary. Offering gentle outstretched hands with my head leaning slightly to the side, I would pull my son in close. Reaching up to smooth his hair, his trusting eyes would search out mine. I would smile with peaceful restraint and sigh, “My beautiful baby boy. How proud we are of you, how well you will do this year. We love you so!”
Then we would share a brief but meaningful hug with the goal being that it lasts just long enough to cement the moment forever. His arms over mine, I would whisper, “Goodbye, my son!” I would turn, not looking back, and walk to our minivan on firm — not Jell-O — legs. And then, it would be over. Goodbye, with a noble chin up like Margaret Thatcher.
What I said when I dropped off my son at college
Wednesday’s college drop-off went like this: Our son walked us to the car. We both knew it was goodbye. My resolve was to give him the reassuring calm of our love and wisdom. What sprang forth instead was:
Use single-ply for toilet paper because double-ply plugs. Make sure you smile back, so you look happy to be here. Never put your drinking cup’s mouth side down on counters because so many germs. You have to sleep, or you’ll start to feel depressed. Wash your hands because other people wipe their butts, and they never wash their hands. I’ve seen it.
He tried to step away for air as I made his neck into a lifesaver.
Did that stop my brilliance? Nope. I gave instructions like I did that night nearly two decades ago when we left him with a babysitter for the first time.
Clenching him by his shirt, I continued:
Don’t lend money. Eat protein, or you’ll feel depressed. Always take a shower because it’s like a miracle. So is a new shirt, so let me know, and I’ll send you some. Look over your shoulder when you walk home alone at night, and do not walk home with earbuds in so you can hear if someone is following you. Good posture and a good haircut save many a day.
Then I fell full-face into my son, in the same desperate way he clutched my arms when he was four months old, trying to crawl back up to me and out of his small plastic bathtub.
My voice muffled by his chest, I couldn’t stop:
In your white plastic bin are three bottles of vitamins and calcium each, take them. Change your toothbrush when it’s splayed. Drink water. Keep a hat — earmuffs aren’t the same — in your backpack. And an umbrella — because chills and rain come out of nowhere in Wisconsin. Read labels, so you know what you’re eating. Move five minutes for every hour of sitting. If you think you need to go to the health clinic, don’t think, go.
I forced down the lump rising in my throat. I don’t know why I was on this mission, but I was. I cawed:
Purell. Wet socks are bad. Be sure and see some blue and green every day, because scurvy is real.
I knew it was now or never for the final goodbye, so I squared my shoulders and stepped back. I opened my mouth to bestow my practiced pearls of love and wisdom upon my son, and I heard a crackled vocal fry worse than a Kardashian’s fill the air.
All the while, I was spouting verses that sounded like Mother Goose, the real message was yet to happen. My beautifully rehearsed golden college send-off speech that I was determined to carry out isn’t materializing.
Suddenly, streams. No — rivers. Waterfalls. I lunged for my son, and a flood of tears that soaked his shirt and would not stop while I was back, swinging from his neck like a weighted pendulum. I tried to break through, but the moment swallowed me up, and I croaked like a frog.
Never had my voice eluded me more.
“Mom,” my son asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. “Why are you crying?”
He asked me so simply as if words could answer. I squeezed my eyes and hid my face in his neck.
I can’t be there anymore to ensure he does everything, so I need him to do it. I need him to listen to my manual on how to care for himself because all these things I’ve thrown at him will keep him safe, sound, healthy, and happy.
I pulled on both his shoulders and wanted him to know that I just needed him to do all these things I sputtered at him like someone who has five minutes to blow up 50 balloons.
I have taken care of him his entire life, and I won’t be there to do it now. He has to be the one to make sure he arrives home every night without earbuds in.
Because this beautiful baby boy is the one who will do so well, the one we are so proud of, we love him so much.
And if there were a Google translator that he could plug in to make sense of my, “Wash your hands because others don’t, and earmuffs are not the same as a hat,” it would tell him with 100 percent accuracy, “Your mama loves you so much it leaves her stupid.”
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