A Mother And Son Reflect On The Day He Left For College

by Melissa T. Shultz and Nick Shultz
Originally Published: 
Image via Shutterstock

Son: I’d packed up all my clothes and memories after shedding tears with friends the night before. We’d stood under the light of a streetlamp within that great and miserable labyrinth of a suburb that I was so desperate to leave for New York City. There were hugs and promises to communicate. I knew this was the beginning of the end of something I once so valued, but I didn’t fear that ending. Those tears were all the sentimentality I allowed myself.

Mom: I did one last walk through of his bedroom, just to be sure he hadn’t left anything. He said he would do it, but some mom habits are hard to break. Normally, finding anything in my youngest son’s room would have been an impossible task, not because it was big— it was the smallest room in the house — but because on most days there were clothes, books, and all the stuff I have ever wondered what happened to strewn about haphazardly. Today, as we were leaving to take him to college 1500 miles away, it was mostly clean. All that was left behind were the usual collection of dirty glasses, empty snack bar wrappers, and the dog’s bed, minus the dog. He’d hoped Benji would stay with him one last night, and he might have, had my son actually slept for more than an hour. But when Nick returned from saying goodbye to his friends, he looked as if sleep were the last thing on his mind. As a distraction, we decided at 1 a.m. to drive to the 24-hour Walmart to get something he needed. I have no memory of what that was; it doesn’t matter. We were in motion, and motion keeps you from overthinking.

Son: The next morning, with my finger on the light switch, I stood in the doorway of my bedroom of nine developmental years and scanned it, hoping I’d feel a sense of closure, but I mostly felt nothing. I turned off the light. Saying goodbye to my dog was odd— I’d known him since I was five— but it wasn’t hard. In fact, I was surprised at how easy it was to say goodbye to the things and people I held so close. I wondered why. My parents and I drove to the airport, my mom talking the whole way.

Mom: At the airport he ate breakfast: a tuna salad sandwich. How did he manage to find the only tuna salad sandwich in the terminal at 6 a.m.? I made small talk. My husband, who had done the smart thing and gone to bed early, joked around — that sweet and kind of corny dad humor that makes you do a combination of cracking up and rolling your eyes. We were both trying in our own ways to keep things upbeat. But Nick was our last child at home. Who were we kidding? We were feeling it.

Son: We rolled through security and onto the plane, and I was tuned into my dad’s quiet smile just as much as my mother’s excited conversation. I realized that silence can say just as much as speech, and sometimes they say the same thing.

I could feel how hard it was for my parents to prepare to say goodbye to their youngest son. I could feel it as we landed and moved all those things into my dorm, and I could feel it as we said goodbye in the parking lot the next day.

Mom: After all the packing and unpacking, scrubbing, organizing, bed-making, suite mate- and suite mate’s parent- introductions, it was time for my husband and me to take our leave. I was fairly seasoned at this routine, having settled our oldest into his college dorm twice before. The difference was, my mother and my brother lived an hour away from his school and I knew they’d be there if he needed anything, if just a good meal. But this time there was no family nearby, nobody to say to this kid, “Come for dinner.” So I was gearing up to do what no new mother thinks she will ever do: walk away…fly away, actually. How could I leave this boy who had brought me so much joy, whom I nurtured a little less every year as he began the shift to living away, but whom I loved even more than I thought possible? I handed him the coin I’d gotten for the occasion— the one with the lucky clover — and told him to keep it with him always, to pull it out if he was feeling like things weren’t going his way. That’s when our eyes met, and I finally saw the sparkle in his. Or was it a tear? I wasn’t sure until he came in for a hug. Me, then his father, then a group hug. I told him I loved him and believed in him. I think he heard me. I’m not entirely sure.

Son: Only then did I feel it myself. I didn’t expect goodbye to be so hard because I was looking forward to school. But it was hard. In retrospect, it had actually been hard to say goodbye to my dog, my room, and my friends, as well. And then my parents were gone. Just like that. Or maybe they weren’t the ones who were gone. Maybe it was me. I felt guilty. I was the one who had left everyone and everything in the dust, and I didn’t truly feel the difficulty until, with my back turned and feet pointed towards campus, I heard them drive off.

Mom: In the car, as we drove away, we watched him walk toward campus. One last glimpse of the boy he was, and the first look at the man he was about to become. A lifetime of love: I hope he knows it’s forever and always.

Son: It took me some time, but I ended up figuring out the reason it wasn’t hard initially was because nothing’s ever really gone. I know my parents, my dog, my room, and my friends will never leave my thoughts or my heart. And I knew that if I felt that way, they did too. Then it wasn’t so hard anymore, and I didn’t wonder why.

Image via Melissa Shultz

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