It was a long three months’ stay away. My firstborn is home from his first semester at college, and tonight nothing can take away my smile. There are more dinner dishes in the sink, and the washer is back to groaning from use. The refrigerator door has been opened and closed enough times tonight that I thought we’d burn through a light bulb.
My son is good, he looks healthy and happy, and he comes alive when he talks of life on campus. I listen to his voice fill the kitchen, and his laugh grips my heart hard enough to hurt.
Our family sits around him, asking our questions. His father asks him about classes and grades. I think of how the week before, he wasn’t here. The yogurt turns sour because he’s not home to eat it. The orange juice goes tart, and the bananas turn brown for the same reason. After three months, I still haven’t learned how to shop for a household that doesn’t have him in it.
It’s been a good first semester away from home for him. School is everything he dreamed it would be.
When he passes by a mirror, he tells me he’s been eating less starch and more protein, and how good this looks on him. I stop myself from saying how easy it is to look good when you’re 19. He’s solid, strong, and hugging him feels like you’re encircling a tree. When I ask how he’s sleeping and feeling, he says great. He adds that he’s working hard, too, and meeting the coolest people. His mood is fantastic, and his eyes dance with the details of his days.
I once had a hint of what this part of his life would be like for both of us. He had just begun kindergarten and was still so little. When I picked him up after four hours, he was unstoppable as he bubbled over with news of projects, books, and what the teacher had said that day. His joy was palpable, but my uncensored reaction to realizing his life was now going to contain parts without me in it struck me smack in the chest.
Time rushes past. It doesn’t seem like we are part of the years we’re in, but around us are the souvenirs from along the way. I see the foot stool I painted green for him, the one he once needed to reach the sink. How is it that it still occupies the same corner—as if it will ever go back to its original purpose?
Now it’s hard not to say, “Tell me everything.”
I wait until we have time alone to ask him where he gets his hair cut, whether or not there is a really good pasta place close by, and if it felt strange the first night he wasn’t home?
“Are your boots warm enough?”
“Do you use a buddy system when you go out? Please say yes.”
“Why don’t I ever see pictures of you with a hat on? Do you need another one?”
If I know the small things, then I can see him clearly in the days he’s not here. I can envision 9:01 or 2:50 or 11:09.
I watch my son as he talks about the life he has now, the one that’s his. I am amazed at how well I take it. I was always certain, I mean a million-dollar-bet certain, that when he left, I would be lost. I pictured myself walking in circles, befuddled, needing to learn the new way to live with one of my children gone. Instead, I find myself thrilled for him, relieved that he’s adapted, grateful that he is happy. I feel all of these things at the same time as the lump in my throat.