I stood outside the door of the used Suburban that Mom and Dad had generously given to my son Jake (a.k.a. “Cub”) so that he could have some wheels while in college, something I did not get until my junior year- mind you. As I waited for Jake to return from his fifth trip of hauling his “stuff” to his new dorm room, I suddenly became aware of the sheer weight of the moment. This was the first of a series of lasts: the last time I would look at him as a child; the last time he would ask me for permission (per se); the last time I could just turn around and ask for a Cubby-hug whenever I needed one. Yup, the weight was indeed heavy as I stood in the dusk light outside of his dorm, listening to college kids greet one another, laugh, and offer to help each other move.
Even the air smelled different. It had a bitter-sweet smell of fresh garden dirt, mixed with floral dew and sea salt.
Weird, I admit, since Colorado is not a coastal state; however, I have always associated smells with emotions. Even though this was a new feeling, my brain still assigned it a distinct smell that would forever be embedded in my memory. I can still easily recall the pungent smell of bleach and oranges whenever my son would have a seizure as a toddler, so the new fragrance was somehow more vivid to me than the reality playing out in front of me: my son was leaving for college.
When Jake returned to the car, he immediately sensed my watery complexion and asked if I was alright. I quickly replied that “I most certainly was.” I’ve never been a very good fibber, so he just smiled at me and gave me a hug saying, “I’m going to miss you too, Mom.” I couldn’t get in the car fast enough to avoid an all-out wailing session in public. I had already missed the parent session titled, “How to Prepare Your Heart and Mind” aimed at helping parents like me deal with the inevitable transition to empty-nest syndrome. The college had offered it during orientation, but with my daughter still at home, I didn’t feel I fit the mold. I kidded myself into believing that that kind of emotional sharing wasn’t for this Alaska Chick. Hah! If only. I still kick myself for not going as I wipe away the tears that inevitably come every time Cub calls home to say “hi” and to share a college experience, to ask that I mail him more dried fish or moose jerky, or when he remembers to send his little sister a cool birthday gift. What a guy!
Leaning over, Cub asked me where we should have our last dinner out together before I flew back to Alaska, and he officially became a college man. We decided to wing-it, parking downtown and walking until we found a trendy open-air bar and grill with a live band. We ordered and sat as close to the band as possible in hopes that our proximity to the music would somehow lift our spirits. It didn’t. Trying to hold back tears, he said he would miss our long talks over coffee, our fun times exploring new cultures and languages, and all of the “family stuff” that I orchestrated over the years.
Damn if my fish tacos didn’t taste better with tears in them.
He then came right out and asked if I had any last words of advice for him. It felt oddly conclusive. Why would these be the last? Where was he going that he wouldn’t be returning? How did we get to this place, where he was so organized and collected, and I was a total wreck? If I were my Labrador, my head would’ve been cocked as far to the side as it could’ve possibly gone right then. It felt odd to say the least; however, I knew exactly what to say. Without any prior thought or planning, my mother-instincts kicked in like a fail-safe switch. I said, “Jake, I only have three pieces of advice for you. One: Believe in yourself. God did not make a mistake when he made you. Believe in that and be brave. Two: Don’t settle down too quickly. There are a lot of fish in the sea, and you are just pulling out of the harbor.” (Even I had to smile at my Alaskan reference.) “And, three: involve us in your life. That’s it.” He looked at me, smiled, and ever-so-calmly said, “OK, Mom.”
Feeling a renewed sense of motherhood and parental success, I took the opportunity to sit in total silence with him as we drove back to the dorms. We’ve never needed to fill space with words to enjoy one another’s company. We simply sat and drove and thought. It was perfect. After four days of orientation meetings, dorm prep, shopping, etc., it was the perfect goodbye.
It was silent, meaningful, pensive, and full of promise.
As I boarded the plane back to Alaska wearing the “CSU Mom” t-shirt I bought at the campus bookstore, I no longer worried about how Jake would fare as a college man. He had demonstrated great wisdom and bravery in his transition through the process, and he had done it with compassion for his mother’s well-being. In short, he already was a man. Yes, he has a lot more to learn about life lessons such as fiscal responsibility, relationships, and not taking unnecessary chances on the road. Still, he has already mastered one skill by the age of 18 that most adults take a lifetime to figure out. He knows how to love.
Now, as I wait for him to come home for Christmas vacation, I find myself worrying about the transition of having him back home. What will the new dynamic feel like? How will everyone adjust and accommodate? Suddenly, my senses awaken to the smell of fresh garden dirt, floral dew, and sea salt. I calm myself and rest in three simple pieces of wisdom I’ve learned over the years: believe in your God-given abilities as a mother, don’t react too quickly, and trust the process of family life.