Sending a Kid Off to College
Our children's last year living at home before they head off to college is an emotional time for both them and us
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Illustration by Anthony Foronda
On a sunny Friday morning in August 2015, my husband turned our aging Volvo station wagon onto a narrow road off a main street in Williamsburg, Virginia, as we approached a collection of dorms at William & Mary.
We immediately slowed to a crawl in a line of cars snaking along the road. It was drop-off day for incoming freshmen, and the moving-in process had been underway for an hour. We’d driven to Williamsburg from our Silver Spring home the night before and arrived about 10 p.m. at a local hotel. Though it’s only about a three-hour drive, we were worried about running into morning traffic and arriving late for dorm check-in for Emily, our oldest daughter.
“We’re late,” Emily said nervously as she saw the long line of cars ahead of us. Her younger sister, 14-year-old Natalie, stared silently out the window. “We’ve got plenty of time,” I said, reminding her that the drop-off period lasted until noon.
As we sat in the car, I thought about Emily’s reluctance to start packing during the past week. Since early that month, empty plastic bins and shopping bags stuffed with bedsheets, hangers, shampoo and other dorm supplies had filled a corner of her room, partially blocking the closet door. I knew those unpacked bins symbolized her fears about living away from home for the first time. After several Facebook chats with her assigned roommate, Emily was sure they were polar opposites: She was a feminist with liberal views shaped by her father’s work in Democratic politics and her years at Silver Spring’s diverse Montgomery Blair High School, while Steph seemed to be a conservative who’d attended a small church school.
Ignoring the need to pack, Emily often went to the pool with Maddie, her cousin and best friend, before meeting up with their six close friends for a seemingly endless round of goodbye dinners. As the summer wound down, the group had begun to spend even more time together, as if to ensure that the physical distance they would soon travel from one another would not break them apart.
When the departure date for each teen arrived, the girls gathered to help her pack and spend a final evening together, talking into the night. Then, even though everyone had said goodbye the night before, the girls returned the next day for another teary hug before the friend drove off with her family. My husband, Brendan, and I were amazed by the melodrama.
Only two friends remained when it was Emily’s time to leave. They came over as she finally began packing the day before we left, and I smiled as I heard the laughter behind her closed bedroom door. Looking in, I noticed the pile of T-shirts with the Montgomery Blair High School logo that she was stuffing into an already bulging suitcase. “After a week, you’re not going to want those Blair shirts,” I said. “Maybe just take one or two.”
“Well, I want them now, so I’m taking them,” she said.
Emily’s group of close girlfriends—shown here after graduation at DAR Constitution Hall in June 2015—spent even more time together during their last summer at home.
The next morning, I sat on her bed as she tried to decide if she should take a bulletin board layered with photos of friends and ticket stubs from plays and concerts. The two friends soon arrived and I left the room, feeling a twinge of resentment that I had to share Emily’s last hours at home.
One friend eventually left, while the other stayed to help us pack the station wagon that afternoon. We were planning to leave right after dinner, and finally I told Emily it was time for Amy to go. In the driveway, the girls hugged tightly for a long moment. “Thanksgiving’s not so far away,” Amy told Emily before pedaling away on her bicycle.
As my family lay sleeping around me in the hotel the night before drop-off, I kept glancing over at Emily in the other queen bed, acutely aware that tomorrow would be the last time for a while that I would be so close to her. I thought about how much she’d grown in the past year, how proud I was of her, and how I knew she would blossom once she settled into school. I thought about those moments during the summer when I just wanted to be near her and she brushed me off. “Quit walking on eggshells around me,” she’d say.
I remembered the Taylor Swift concert that Emily, Natalie and I attended that July at Nationals Park. I had bought the tickets thinking it would be a fun mother-daughter outing before Emily left. I might as well have stayed home—when we found our seats, Emily sat between me and Natalie. For two hours, the girls mostly ignored me, shouting in each other’s ears as they sang and danced.
In the car the next morning, I pulled the orientation information out of my pocketbook to review one more time. The day’s schedule was well choreographed and allotted only about a five-minute window for saying goodbye before scheduled freshmen orientation activities. Over the next few hours, we’d unpack and help Emily move in, run to Target for anything we forgot, have lunch together and then leave. I figured that left plenty of time to slip in some extra hugs before I had to let her go.
Looking up, I noticed students in neon-green T-shirts approaching the cars ahead of us. Soon a young woman stopped at our car and welcomed Emily through the open windows. Freshmen, she said brightly, were to walk ahead to check into their dorms while parents parked in unloading areas.
Without a word, Emily opened her door, hopped out and joined the other freshmen heading down the path. Within seconds, they rounded a bend and moved out of sight. Tears sprung to my eyes and I felt a wave of panic.
Don’t go yet! I silently shouted. I’m not ready!
* * *
We caught up with Emily outside the dorm a few minutes later, but now the reality could no longer be denied: After almost 18 years of seeing our daughter nearly every day, we would wake up the next morning and her bedroom would be empty. We wouldn’t find her in the kitchen, eating last night’s leftovers, her dirty socks under the table where she’d kicked them off, or hear her arguing with her sister about who had used all of the shampoo.
During the months before Emily left, I thought I was dealing well with her impending departure, but looking back, I can see that my subconscious fears about letting her go had broken through. That was especially apparent in early August, when my extended family took a weeklong vacation to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Throughout that summer, a wave of shark attacks had been occurring farther south.
As we camped on the beach each day, I stood at the edge of the surf or sat upright in my beach chair, my novel resting unread in my lap as I scanned the water while my girls and their cousins played in the waves. On the advice of a family friend who lived nearby, I’d allow the girls to stay in the water for 15 minutes or so and then wave them in. As the days passed and no sharks were sighted, they grew more testy, often telling me that I was “being ridiculous” as they dropped into beach chairs. My fears eased as the week drew to a close, and some afternoons I didn’t even bother going to the beach with them.
On our last day, though, a storm was moving in. The sky was heavy and gray, and the sea was roiling. The huge breakers crashing onto the shore were like a siren call to Emily, her dad and a teenage cousin, all of whom ran into the waves in late morning.
As the powerful current drew the girls farther down the beach, I followed along on the shore, at first silently watching as the waves knocked them down. After about 10 minutes, my nerves overcame me and I began yelling repeatedly, “Emily, get out!”—not caring who heard my shrill voice. When Emily saw that I wouldn’t give up, she trudged toward the beach, refusing to look at me and muttering angrily, “You are out of control,” as she grabbed her towel and headed back to the beach house. When I tried to catch up, she marched ahead and shouted, “Leave me alone.”
It was only later that day, when we were safely in the car headed back to Silver Spring, that I realized my fear for Emily’s safety that week had more to do with her leaving home than the danger of sharks or powerful waves.
* * *