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The Hardest Goodbye

Photograph by Getty Images

Driving away that afternoon was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I don't want to get maudlin here and I was very clear (with myself and with him) that I wanted him to be away from home and experience life elsewhere. But this particular person was a joy to live with at every age, which as you probably know, is a huge thing to say about one's child.

He has spent whole summers at camp a continent away. By the end of high school, he was never home except when he was asleep or showering. He isn't fun to wake up in the morning and he can be quite judgmental. He and his friends have been known to play too-loud music. But none of that helped me drive away.

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Our two days in his college city were surprisingly fun, even though we spent most of our time shopping. We spent so much time driving around, choosing school and dorm necessities and transferring purchases in and out of the car, that when I got home I searched the airport parking lot for my rental car.

Going to college now is different than it was for our generation. Back then, I got off the bus from the red eye and dragged my two heavy suitcases across the campus to my dorm. The guys on the bottom floor took them upstairs for me. I unpacked myself. No parents, no siblings, no Bed, Bath and Beyond. These days, there are legions of college-t-shirted upperclassmen giving helpful directions and just waiting to carry heavy boxes, not to mention procedures for short-term and long-term parking, seminars on "letting go" and activities for siblings. Also: dorm meetings, RAs, orientations, meetings with deans for both parents and kids.

I was determined not to cry—I wanted him to know how happy I was that he'd started a new part of his life.

The ceremonies started the first night. At convocation, the students wear t-shirts from their dorms (all different colors) and there are speeches from the chancellor, deans, a faculty member and some students. Good stuff, for the most part, though my cynical not-a-joiner son claimed to be bored. Afterwards the parents "lit the way" with glow sticks for kids walking back to their dorms.

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The next day, all possible errands run, he walked me to my car. I was determined not to cry—I wanted him to know how happy I was that he'd started a new part of his life. We said we'd call—me when I got home, my son whenever he felt like it. I headed out, burst into tears, and saw him in my rear view mirror doing exactly the same. I kept going, but truth be told, I could barely see the road in front of me.

Four-and-a-half years later, I can tell you it all worked out beautifully. He found friends, ate regularly, and slept (but rarely through classes). Still, I will never forget the moment I left him there in the parking lot trying to wipe the tears from his face, so he'd seem calm when he got back to his dorm, and how I drove on, so we could go our now, separate ways.

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