Sending Kids to College for the First Time

Luke enters Wash U

We  just moved one of our twin sons to Washington University in St. Louis, one time zone away. In two weeks, we’ll help set up his brother at Stanford University, three time zones away.

I’m thrilled for our sons, nervous about the challenges ahead, and excited about the marvelous opportunities that lie before them.  Distracting myself with organizational tasks and preparations, I’ve managed to avoid being maudlin, morose, sentimental, and weepy (most of the time).

Letting Luke go was harder than I expected. The 12-hour drive to St. Louis was long and dull. By about hour 9, when it was getting dark and we discovered we had only had a few miles of gas left, I hit my low point. There was no gas station to be seen…nothing…for miles. No street lights… no exit ramp… no billboards… no road signs. Since I’d never been to St. Louis, my mind was a blank, too. In such a vast and empty landscape, the demons began leering and taunting, “He gave up Duke for this? He could have been less than 3 hours from home, and he chose this?” “Why didn’t you try to intervene?” “You spoiled, elitist, East coast snob, how could you even think such questions?”

Fortunately, I kept quiet in the back seat, we found a gas station, and soon arrived in St. Louis, where the city lights cast the demons back into the shadows. Next morning, we drove on campus, to be greeted by adorable, friendly students directing us to the dorms and offering to help tote the baggage. The campus was so lovely, each building more impressive than the next, that I found myself brimming with enthusiasm, delighted that Luke belonged there. I managed to keep up my spirits up right until the goodbyes, when I hugged him tight and croaked, “I love you,” turning aside to hide my tears. Luke sauntered off to join his orientation group, and I climbed in the car and sobbed.

Only for a few minutes. Since then I have (mostly) refused to indulge  in sadness and sentimentality. I’m not the first person to send off a child to a far away place, and I know how lucky I am, and Luke is, to be at Wash U, especially when only 4 miles away in Ferguson, MO, the Brown family will not be sending their son Michael to college, because he was shot and killed by a policeman a few days before his semester started.

But I’m no holier than thou. Truth is, I feel as if a cavern has been carved in my heart. It IS really hard to let your child go away, even to such a good place.  Today, exactly one week since we said our goodbyes, I’m sitting on the couch, aimlessly web surfing, failing to summon motivation to read, work, exercise, clean, or organize. Feeling maudlin, morose, sentimental, and weepy.

I look like my Mom in this photo.
I’m standing just like she would,
literally in her shoes.

In that roundabout way I come to recognize grief, I’m realizing that I’m not just grieving the separation from Luke, but also missing my Mom. I really want to call and ask her how she managed when we left for college. I never thought about how my departure affected her. I was 18, self-centered, and preoccupied with my own new adventure. When my parents drove 9 hours round-trip to deliver me to Vermont, I didn’t recognize their effort as an act of love and generosity. It was just something they had to do—their job. Dad says Mom cried in the car on the way home, and he recalls me being pretty emotional when they left me. I don’t remember being upset. “Well, maybe you weren’t,” he concedes.

I can reconstruct memories with Dad, but now that I’m a mother, I want to hear firsthand how Mom felt. I can’t ask her because she can’t remember. If she could, she’d probably tell me what everyone else who has gone through this says: it’s hard at first, but you get used to it quickly. It’s not the message itself I want, but the act of knitting my experiences to hers, of comparing patterns.

I don’t know if talking to my Mom would make letting my sons go any easier. Probably not. What I do know is that letting my sons go is a kind of loss that taps a much bigger and harder loss, one I keep grieving and then shutting away. I live 17 hours drive from my Mom. I can’t talk to her on the phone or Skype with her anymore. I keep finding reasons to delay my next visit—good reasons, like taking our sons to college—but the truth is that I’m dreading seeing her and facing her further decline. It’s easier to practice avoidance. Until something else opens the wellsprings of grief—like taking our sons to college.

Come to think of it, in this way my life is knitted to hers, inextricably, if not in the way I would choose. The happy heartache of sending Luke and Thomas to college is entwined with the slow sorrow of losing Mom to Alzheimer’s. This rite of passage knits us together in a larger pattern, as we each adjust to new independent or assisted living conditions. The heart strings that tug and ache are physical reminders of the way I’m connected to my family. They also remind me of the song, “Oh My Heart,” from REM’s album, Collapse into Now:

Hear the song rearranged
Hear the tress, the ghosts and the buildings sing
With the wisdom to reconcile this thing

It’s sweet and it’s sad and it’s true
How it doesn’t look bitter on you

Oh my heart
Oh my heart
(oh my heart)
Oh my heart
Oh my heart
(oh my heart)

Mother and father
I stand beside you
The good of this world
Might help see me through


6 Responses to “Sending Kids to College for the First Time”

  1. KM says:

    You are one of my favorite essayists, Suzanne. Reading about your desire to knit your story to your mom’s called to mind a talk by the sculptor in residence at my college, Paul Granlund. He spoke about the positive and negative spaces in his clay — and in life. I admire how you cope with the negative spaces in your life, weaving together such powerful observations. Much love, Kristi

  2. Christine says:

    “It’s not the message itself I want, but the act of knitting my experiences to hers, of comparing patterns.” That will stick with me a while.

  3. Sandra Wiseman says:

    Suzie. This is so poignant. The tears came for the days I said goodbye to my two boys, for the loss you feel for Luke and Thomas and for your grief for the losing of your mom. I will tell you, like others, that it will get get easier AND they almost all come back. As for your mom, I understand how hard it is to not be able to share the important things with her. I wish I could say that desire will lessen with time, but it hasn’t for me. Moms are just like that. Your mom appears relaxed and happy for the most part. I believe she knows things are okay. She gave her children what they needed for life without her, just as you have done for Luke and Thomas. Think of you often.


  4. JEAN KIRKHAM says:

    Hi Suzie–We were at the cottage when you wrote this–but I did want to reply. I just wish I could “knit” your mom back together again in her mind. We feel for you and the whole family. I replied to your Dad after he wrote that Val may only have 2 years to live. How hard to know this. But I told him, as I tell you that love surrounds her and all of you. Love is the secret of life and your mom has loved you and your dad and your children, as you now love your children and Matt. Love will keep all of you safe and thankful for the blessings of each day. I have a friend who has asked her friends to write 3 things for a whole week–every day –of things she is thankful for. —SO –I am thankful that I have known your Mom as a good friend. I am thankful your Dad is able to cope in such an amazing way with the disease your Mom has. Ands I am thankful you have such clever sons that they are accepted to great colleges. (be assured they WILL come home!!) and I am thankful for your writing and thoughts.—-Hey that is 4 things–time to sign off —–much love, jean

  5. JE Turner says:

    Your reference to R.E.M. (and Michael Stipe’s lyrics) brought chills. Thoughts of our shared youth reminded me of R.E.M’s first record – it, too, had a telling song all its own, in “Pilgrimage”. Still brand new to our ears all those years ago, it spoke, in a literal sense, of who knows what (his lyrics in that period were so intimate and guarded). Its emotional truth spoke to taking a leap – into who knows what.

    The pilgrimage has gained momentum
    Take a turn, take a turn
    Take our fortune, take a turn
    Take our fortune, take a turn

    Your mother knew what Michael meant (even if she wouldn’t let you stay out late enough for our gang to see R.E.M. finish their encore in 1984 – just days before you trundled off to college for the first time). It was time for you to leap. So please know (and feel) that your knitting has formed a circle. Your mother might also agree with Michael when he sings:

    We all go back to where we belong

  6. Suzanne Churchill says:

    Jeff, I’d forgotten that my parents’ curfew made us miss the final encore. All I remember is what an amazing concert that was. Would that I wasn’t such a rule follower! I should have defied my curfew so we could have stayed for the last note!

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