College goodbyes loom. Be sad but also be grateful for the moments past and future.
Never was I at more of a loss than when the most important role of my life was redefined. Other parents’ lives helped me find perspective, fast.
Well, here we are. It’s August, and I know from reader mail and posts on social media that a lot of parents are bracing to send off their first or last child to college.
If you’re at all like I was when I sent my kids off, you’re probably trying to remind yourself how lucky you are. Look at your babies, fleeing the nest just like you taught them to do.
Not to make it all about us, but what about us? Once they’re gone, then what?
I raised two kids, born 12 years apart. I was an involved mom. To this day, my 35-year-old daughter’s nickname for me – widely shared, I’ve recently discovered – is Extreme Connie. That pretty much sums up my parenting, for good and bad.
The things you remember from when they walk away
When my son, Andy, left for college, I felt his absence twice. First when he left and took his music and surly jokes with him, and then again when we visited him in the fall during parents’ weekend. That’s when it hit me just how much 6-year-old Caitlin missed her big brother. Until she laid eyes on him, I’m not sure she believed she’d ever see him again.
Nearly three decades later, a framed photo of them from that weekend still sits on my desk. He was a beanpole of a kid back then, 6-feet-plus with John Lennon glasses and a long, thick ponytail that always reminded me of an upside-down exclamation mark. In the photo he’s holding Cait’s hand, and I remember her little legs working so hard to keep pace with him as they strolled through the fallen leaves. She’s wearing her color-block coat because he once told her it was his favorite, and her polka dot pant legs are pushed up high on her calves because that’s how she liked to wear them. The things you remember.
I shot the photo as I walked behind them. What is about pictures of our loved ones walking away? Why do they tug at us so?
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It was hard to send my oldest off to college, but his sister was still home with me, and soon I was a single mother. For the next decade it was just the two of us except when Andy visited, unless you counted our two cats and pug Gracie as family, which we always did. They had their own Christmas stockings to prove it.
When my life's role was redefined
Before I knew it, certainly before I was ready, it was Cait’s turn to leave. I put a brave face on for Cait right up to the moment we said goodbye and drove away from campus. I cried for all four hours it took my husband and me to drive home. We had been married just a year, and this was a side of me Sherrod had never seen. I assured him that this blubbering woman was new to me, too. Between sobs, I’m sure I said this.
I wrote about sending my youngest off to college. Of course, I did. I was a columnist trying to make sense of the world one column at a time. Never was I at more of a loss than when the most important role of my life was redefined. Who was I now, with both of my children launched into the world?
A 7-year-old saved a drowning 3-year-old. This is why access to swim safety matters.
Other parents’ lives helped me find perspective, fast. In the first week of August 2005, just two weeks before my daughter left for college, 20 members of Brook Park, Ohio’s 25th Regiment, Third Battalion Marines were killed in Iraq. The regiment’s headquarters was 11 miles from our home.
I attended many of their funerals, and interviewed their grieving parents, one after another after another. I wrote about them in that same column about my daughter leaving for college:
“What got to me most was the certainty that this was it, their last chance to make memories with their children. In a final embrace, they reached out to touch flag-draped coffins holding the lifeless bodies of their children, who had so much to live for.”
Embrace the gift of college goodbye
My daughter was leaving for college. How blessed could one mother be?
I share this not to chastise parents feeling the swirl of emotions as they watch their kids pack and prepare for daily lives without them. This is a big change for everyone in a family, and there is no denying the combustible mix of joy for what lies ahead, and the sneaky moments of grief over what will no longer be.
What I am here to tell you is, no matter how difficult it is to say goodbye, it is a gift to believe it’s temporary. To send them off trusting we will see them again and again and again.
I wasn’t going to mention all of this until Tuesday, when I saw the Facebook posts of two parents who lost their Marine son that day in 2005. Each had their own way of remembering him, as parents do. Each of them reminded me how lucky I am, still.
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USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz