We stood by the car, the engine still running, to say our goodbyes in the parking lot, far from the new dorm room when, suddenly, she folded into my arms and burrowed deep into my neck.
An hour or so earlier, we had left her dorm room a “disasterpiece” (a word coined by our daughters when they were little and quite proud of the messes they could make). Boxes, Target bags, and two suitcases cluttered the small floor. There were four of us crammed into the small room and the temperature seemed to be nearing 182 degrees Fahrenheit.
So in the midst of the unpacking, we left to grab lunch and cool down a bit. And now we were dropping her off and leaving her to organize her stuff all by herself, as we had with her two sisters years before. Just like those two other times, I really wanted to go in with her and help her organize her clothes and her lotions and make her bed and tuck her into it. And just like those other two times, the reality was, the room would not allow for all those bodies and clashing ideas about how to do it all.
As prepared as I thought I was from past dorm drop-offs, her tears in the parking lot caught me by surprise.
My oldest daughter didn’t cry when we left her four years earlier—at least not in front of us. She was such an awful kid to me that day that when we left her, I didn’t even want to talk to her, let alone hug her. But I did. And later that night, she called and we both cried.
I don’t remember how it happened the next year, with my middle daughter except that I was the one to cry that time as we hugged and said goodbye. Calls of favoritism rang out from all around me and I tried, feebly, to explain to them it was not favoritism, but a knowing. With the oldest, I thought we would be different ever after, but when I dropped daughter number two into the well of college life, I knew our relationship would never again be what it was in that moment.
Somehow, this time, my last time ever, the amount of will I was using to not cry, took my energy from noticing she was doing the same.
What do you do in that moment? What is the best, right move?
I mean, you can stand there and weep with her and usher her back into the car and leave everything in the room and just go back home and pretend the whole college idea was just some silly fluke, stick your fingers in your ears and sing “Lalalalala” all the way back up I-65—can’t you?
Or you can hold her a bit and whisper in her ear, “you’ve got this” and rub her back until the hiccups stop then take her by the shoulders, turn her around, and give her the gentlest push toward something that isn’t you.
Here’s what I’ve left out of the story of her leaving home: the year and a half prior to this moment, I spent most of my time deep in the couch, facing (or not facing) a debilitating depression decades in the making. And she, without active consent, was my nursemaid through it. I was so deep in the muck, I had no idea how it was affecting her until one day when I jokingly said (as I had a thousand times) “You know you don’t HAVE to go to college.”
She sighed heavily in response and then said, “Yeah, I know.”
“Are you thinking—about not going?” I asked.
“A little, but not really.” She paused, like she was choosing carefully what she’d say next. “I’m worried about you,” she said, finally. “I’m afraid you won’t eat while I’m gone because I won’t be here to run to the store or McDonalds. I’m afraid you will sit here all day and not talk to anyone except Dad.”
Not gonna lie. That one hit the bullseye in my heart.
“Well,” I said, forcing a smile, “you will be gone and I will have my car back, so I will be out all the time. And, I’ll have to leave the house to get my own damn food.” I pulled her in close to me. Then I got serious and said that I would be fine. “I’m sorry.” I ran my hand over her hair. “I’m sorry you, more than anyone, felt the burden of taking care of me. And I will miss you.”
“What are we going to do without each other?” she said with a half-smile that tore at my already-wounded heart.
Back in the parking lot as I wiped her tears from both of our cheeks, I told her, “It will be hard at first, but you will find your way. I believe in you.”
She walked away, toward her new life, sniffling and hiding her red eyes as best she could.
Miles out of town, my tears dripped down as quietly as they could. I looked out the side window and wore my drugstore-over-the-glasses sunglasses to hide the emotions that wanted out. And they were such a mixed bag of emotions—some mine and some hers. Excitement clashed with fear that buoyed courage that tried to drown out sadness.
“It will be hard at first, but you will find your way. I believe in you,” I told myself as I watched the burnt yellows of the late-summer crops slide by my window.
More work by Tina Porter can be found at Brain, Child’s online magazine, in the book Here in the Middle, and at her blog, Ugly Pies (where nothing is perfect but the love). You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.