It would be perfect: I had memorized every word the night before. Actually, more like the early morning of. At 2:19 a.m., I knew exactly what I was going to say and do when we dropped off our oldest son at college the next day.
I would stand before him, like the Virgin Mary. Offering gentle outstretched hands with my head leaning just slightly to the side, I would pull my child in close. Reaching up to smooth his hair, his trusting eyes would search out mine. I would smile with the peaceful restraint of someone who had just been drugged 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 end goal being that it lasts just long enough to cement the moment. His arms over mine, I would whisper, “Goodbye, my son!” I would then turn, no 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.
Wednesday’s college drop-off went like this: Our son walked us to the car. We knew it was the goodbye. My resolve was to gift him with the reassuring calm of our love and wisdom. What sprang forth instead, was:
Use single-ply for toilet paper because double-ply plugs. You have to sleep or you’ll start to feel depressed. Make sure you smile back so you look happy to be here. Never put your drinking cups mouth side down on counters because so many germs. 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 shouted instructions like I did that night almost two decades ago when we first left him with a babysitter.
Clenching him by his shirt, I started anew:
Don’t lend money. 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. 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. Good posture and a good haircut save many a day.
Then I fell full-face into my son, in the same desperate way that he clutched my arms trying to crawl back up to me and out of his small plastic bathtub when he was four months old.
I couldn’t stop. My voice muffled by his chest, I continued:
Read labels so you know what you’re eating. 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. 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.
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.
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.
Suddenly, streams. No—rivers. Waterfalls. I lunged for my son and a flood of tears that would not stop soaked his shirt while I was back to swinging from his neck like a weighted pendulum. I tried to break through but the moment swallowed me up and I was croaking like a frog.
Never had my voice disappointed 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 pulled on both his shoulders and wanted him to know that I just needed him to do all these things I’ve sputtered at him like someone who has 5 minutes to blow up 50 balloons.
I can’t be there anymore to make sure 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, happy.
I have taken care of him his entire life, and now, I won’t be there to do it. He has to be the one to make sure he arrives home every night. Without earbuds in.
Because this beautiful baby boy, the one we are so proud of, the one who is going to do so well, 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.”