He was my TV binge-watching buddy and movie companion. He’d get the popcorn; I’d get the chocolate.
He could make me laugh so hard I couldn’t stop. He’s my firstborn. Sure, my husband and daughter are good company, but he and I share a special bond: a passion for bad disaster movies and sitcoms or dramas with overbearing mother characters who actually make me look good.
After years of Barney, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hey Arnold! and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—none of which I ever got onboard with—we were finally on the same page. If he was not at work or with his friends, I was thrilled to be his backup plan. But our casual arrangement was short-lived. He was home after college only long enough to save up to move out, as it should be. I knew it was time.
We checked out a few apartments and found one our first day out. The lease was signed a week later, and the proverbial “one foot out the door” was becoming very real, very quickly. We escorted him on the obligatory Ikea and Bed, Bath & Beyond runs, helping him decorate in true minimalist style, and loaded up the SUV as we had several times before during his college years. I was happy for him, so I did what I could to help and shared in his enthusiasm. But I was also sad.
I had dealt with our “goodbyes” before, although not always in the most noble fashion. Even though the classic nursery school separation left us unfazed, the sleepaway camp goodbye threw me for a loop. He and his little sister had appeared at the side of the road as we were driving away from the camp that day. He placed one arm around her tiny shoulder and waved at us with a big sweep of his other arm. I took a mental photograph of the two little solemn faces as we passed; they looked like a couple of lost orphans. I was waterworks until we reached the highway, while, unbeknownst to us, they were basically dancing a conga line back at camp.
Then there was the summer program he attended in Ireland. I was not allowed to go to the airport gate, so I kept yelling, “Get on the plane with the giant shamrock!” because I had no confidence my 16 year-old would arrive on the correct continent without guidance.
My cousin said she knew what I was now going through, as she just moved her oldest into college. I admit that isn’t easy either, but this is a whole other thing. For me, this was the moment my son actually became an independent adult (he is fully supporting himself). That meant there would be no “boomeranging”—he was leaving, and it would most likely be forever.
That had been my stated goal for 20-some odd years: to foster the launching of an independent adult. But then when it actually came to pass, I had more trouble with it than I’d imagined. I had grown very attached to this new adult, who can often guess what I’m thinking and knows my flaws and my guilty pleasures better than most anyone.
He had been the happy little boy with the perfect bowl haircut and trademark big smile, who, from a young age, engaged in conversation with grown-ups and could recite dialogue from every movie he had ever seen. His framed image now grins at me from nursery school, camp, grade school, little league and high school pictures as I scan the shelves of the den. It’s his entire childhood in one room. His college yearbook photo faces me in the bedroom, but there he’s not stiff with an unnatural smile, choked by a button-up dress shirt and tie. He only sat for that picture at my insistence and appears unshaven, smiling warmly with his burgundy T-shirt peeking out underneath his black cap and gown. It’s my favorite shot.
As we were putting things away before his first night in the new apartment, my tears were just below the surface. I tried to focus on the business at hand. He saw right through me, asking me if I was okay. The ruse was up, and I momentarily lost control, embarrassed to release a few drops. He wrapped his arms around me, leaning over to embrace me in a giant bear hug. He understood.
When everything was set up, I walked out of his apartment and into the hallway. When I turned to go down the stairs, I looked back at him where he stood in his new doorway. He raised his hand to wave goodbye and flashed me that smile of his. He was proud. I walked down the stairs and out to the car and sat there for a few minutes, not wanting to leave. I stared up at his lit window and eventually pulled away from the curb, knowing full well that he was starting his own life without me and that this goodbye was a separation like no other.
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