After saying good-bye to nine puppies last spring, I thought I had good-bye down, that it wouldn’t be so hard to say good-bye to my oldest daughter as she left for college this fall.
I was wrong. I should’ve known raising puppies for 2-3 months had nothing on raising a child for 18 years.
She’s been gone three weeks, but it seems a lot longer. I don’t think much about her when I’m busy preparing my fall classes, cleaning out the basement or sorting hand-me-downs for the cousins.
But her absence is felt when I sit down to dinner with one less person at the kitchen counter or wake up to silence because she’s not playing music as she gets ready for school. When my husband leaned over at the theater last weekend and said, “Maggie would love this movie,” I knew he felt it too.
Before she left, I assumed I’d be the prototypical mother, hanging out in her room, sleeping in her bed, and gazing at the mess she left behind, but I haven’t. If I go in there, I just feel the urge to clean and I don’t have the energy.
I was lucky, sort of, because when I left her at school for her field hockey pre-season, I knew I’d be back a week later for freshman orientation. But saying good-bye multiple times is like pulling the bandage off - really, really slowly. The pain is still there and lingers longer.
When we – my husband, younger daughter and I - dropped her off, the campus was deserted – only the athletes and student government kids were there. The dorm halls were eerily quiet. Her roommate had yet to arrive, leaving half her room bare. There wasn’t a lot of hoopla over the freshmen moving in, although I did make a small-world connection with her student fellow – I play tennis with her aunt – which made me more comfortable and excited.
As I hugged Maggie good-bye, she said to her dad and sister, “I can hear the warble in her voice.” I fled so she wouldn’t see what I’m sure she knew I’d do – cry in the car.
The following week, the three of us, and her boyfriend, returned for the first day of Freshman Orientation to meet her roommate and finish setting up her room. The rest of her class arrived with boxes, bags and parents to be greeted by all sorts of screaming upperclassmen. We raised both beds so dressers and mini-frigs could be stored more easily. Maggie’s side of the room is ocean blues and greens and her roommate’s side is flower pinks and reds, quite cheerful.
Maggie’s energy was flagging when we saw her, but she was looking forward to classes and field hockey. I cried harder this time – silently in the back seat so her boyfriend wouldn’t see or hear – because this was the real good-bye. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t see her again – we have field hockey games as an excuse to visit, but I know when she comes home from now on, it’s to visit, not live. She’s doing what she’s supposed to – stepping out on her own. But I feel left behind, stuck in the same old-same old.
When my husband reached around from the driver’s seat to pat my leg in the car, Maggie’s boyfriend asked, “Are you crying?” I told him I’d kill him if he told Maggie. I want her to focus on getting to know new people, work on her classes, deal with her own anxieties. She shouldn’t worry about me.
I hadn’t counted on a call from her two days later saying she was on her way to the ER for chest xrays because the college infirmary suspected she had pneumonia. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent, and I had said my big good-bye. She was on her own. I didn’t want to embarrass her by rushing to her side.
But, after much debate, she texted me, “Um, if you want to come, that would be ok”, and I got in the car.
For three nights, she slept with me at the college inn to ensure a good night’s sleep away from the revelry on campus, rested in the infirmary during the day and had mini breaks when she hung out in her dorm room to see new friends from her hall. She missed going to a tropical theme party, but loaned her coconut bra to a boy, who wore it with post-its testifying he was doing this for Maggie.
While it was nice to mother her for those days, it was brutal saying good-bye Sunday afternoon. She had classes on Monday and, just as I had to let the new owners take care of our puppies, it was time for the college, and she herself, to take care of Maggie. My job was to leave.
Leaving her when she didn’t feel well and was upset with missing freshman orientation and field hockey practice wasn’t easy. I couldn’t help but text and Facebook her to make sure she was checking in with the infirmary and resting as much as possible. It’s impossible not to worry – even from a distance.
Within a few days, her voice changed. Her spirit was returning even if her energy wasn’t. She was pacing herself carefully focusing on homework and not socializing. A few days later she even cleaned her room.
She’s already learning life lessons and so am I.
I remember how excited I was to live on my own, and how grown-up I felt realizing I didn’t always need or want my family around. She’s in the early stages of that realization and while I am honestly thrilled for her, it sucks being me.
While she’s investing time and energy in her future and her dad and I are investing money, lots of it, in that same future, I’m also trying to invest in my future. I’m teaching and writing more, and I’m registered for a pottery class and dog training for the puppy we kept.
Maybe when she does come home, she’ll be as excited to see me as the puppies are when they visit – jumping, wagging and playing chase. I just hope she doesn't pee on the floor.