Even if you are not a fan of Joni Mitchell, you have to concede that she was on to something when she sang about that big yellow taxi. My son is a freshman in college. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, sang Joni. You also don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s situated nicely on a college campus 300 miles away.
There is no sugar coating the early weeks after the big college drop off. I may not have been a sobbing mess, but my emotions did splash. Just hearing my son’s name could make my eyes fill. Seeing a forgotten sweatshirt hanging by the front door could send my lower lip trembling. A fuse ready to be lit, I should have worn a sign that read “Handle with Care.” This emotional bomb was set to go off, even after perfectly reasonable conversation starters like “Hey, how’s he liking school?” Heaven help the poor woman at the checkout who looked at my items and asked me if I was making a care package. I rarely knew what would trigger me.
But almost harder than wading through my own feelings was watching all the rest of my people struggling with theirs. Just to fill you all in on a little secret from the frontlines: those big strong men you live with will buckle under the weight of this change too. Sure, your husband might talk a good game: “So proud!” “So excited!” “So happy!” You need to know that he is just so spectacularly out of touch with his emotions.
Your guy might even mock you just a little bit for all of your sloppy, constantly emoting emotions, but he will get his too. When he hears your sweet boy deliver his first college radio broadcast, he might even tear up and and finally get in touch with that full range of emotions you are now experiencing daily. It’s all OK. This Olympic level of missing takes the parenting game to a new plane where even stoic rock solid dads crumble a little. Pick him up and hug him and forgive him for the mocking. This stuff hurts in a way that feels new and raw and visceral. You are all exposed nerves here.
And then there are the siblings. In my house, this means a sister only nineteen months his junior and three younger brothers, the youngest only a tender eight years old. They all handled the new dynamic in our house each in their own way, but collectively it looked like a lot of mopey kids laying around my house. The bodies that were usually in perpetual motion were flopped over whatever upholstered chair, couch, pillow, or clean corner of the floor they could find. Obviously, we are not a people prone to nuance; this was sulking on an epic scale. Academy award winners wish they had our flair for the dramatic.
What it looked like was nothing compared to what it sounded like though. For the first time since we busted the seams of our house with the full complement of this crew of five, it was cool, calm, and collected around here. The profound quiet shot straight to my heart and found its target. Holy crap, I thought, this is so much worse than I thought.
To a mom of five, this was a bright red warning sign on the dashboard of our family. Their silence said loud and clear: all is not well below the hood. Nobody wanted to reanimate that sacred space their brother left behind nor had the words to fill it anyway. Their longing left them all mute and grasping, so we leaned all the way in and got all touchy-feely. Our family mantra became “feel all the feels, just don’t be a jerk” and we splashed those emotions around with impunity. Our sound levels slowly but surely crept back to the deafening roar that feels familiar, safe, and ours. We were discovering a new way to be home.
But the truth is that we were still kind of stuck, and I think my son was too. Things were going as well as they could go for him as he transitioned to a new town, new school, and new life. My sister, a college professor, warned us about midterm time, though. That’s when the bottom drops out, she said, that’s when they use up all their reserves. Sure enough, a couple days shy of that mark, we got a text from him saying that he wanted to come home. My Momma Spidey Senses were tingling: my boy was a little homesick and oh, my heart. We all really, really, REALLY wanted a little shot of togetherness, but we convinced him to wait until Fall Break the next week. Then we got busy. Favorite foods were prepared, rooms were cleaned, every person in earshot knew he was coming home.
And then he was here, he was HOME, and we got to be the “Us” we knew again. I didn’t even intervene when bickering broke out. Spirited conversation is the birdsong of my people. We were finding our way back to each other even in our fights over backseats and side yard soccer rules. There were many wonderful things that happened that weekend, not the least of which was that spontaneous mother-son hugs and hair ruffles happened on the regular. But, by far, the very best thing was that we finally put the devil to rest. The one that had been hanging around and giving us sloppy emotions. The one that had niggled in the deep corners of each of our minds. The one that asked the hard question: are we really us without him here?
The answer is yes and no. We are on the other side of this mountain now. Of course, our family life is different today than two months ago. There are different daily alliances, different personalities moving into the spotlight, different roles to be picked up and tried on. But that is all as it should be. Family is a safe place to change and grow, and we make room for that here.
But in some ways, this major change, this fundamental shift, this child leaving for college, hasn’t changed a thing. The mystery of love is its ability to adapt and change to fit the people who need it and want it and commit themselves to it fully. Our “Us-ness” is alive and well and excited to explore this next new place. Our hearts are full with the sight of our sweet boy doing the very thing we so hoped and dreamed to see him doing: finding his way without our map or guidance.
But not without our love. That will do what it’s always done: light dark corners and warm cold spaces.
And I even appreciate that devil who sat on my shoulder for as long as he did. I see very clearly all that I have, and it’s pretty great.
Joni Mitchell should write a song about that.
Check out our books, “I Just Want to Be Alone” and “You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth.”