When it came time to help Ethan through the college selection process, my ex and I took a divide-and-conquer approach. I flew with our boy to Ann Arbor for a tour of the University of Michigan. Richard drove him to Charlottesville to check out the University of Virginia. On a rainy summer afternoon Ethan and I slogged around the sprawling grounds of Fordham’s Bronx campus. And, finally, decision nearly made, Richard drove him to University Park for Penn State’s Accepted Students’ Day.
I wrote here, then deleted, that Richard and I began trading off like this without much discussion. The truth is we hadn’t discussed it at all. It’s a pattern we fell into after our disastrous attempt, at the end of Ethan’s eighth-grade year, to tour high schools as a family. Richard and I had been divorced for nearly a decade by then and were unused to each other’s company. We quickly discovered we didn’t agree on much of anything. Public vs. private, local vs. Manhattan, whether to stay for info sessions or simply grab pamphlets and go. At some point I told him I felt it important that Ethan attend a school with a diverse group of classmates.
“Don’t let your values get in the way of your decision making,” he said.
I stared at him. What, if not our values, points us toward our best choices? I should have asked this aloud, but I found myself stunned silent by my own choice, long ago, to marry this man.
And so, four years later, it seemed natural to accompany Ethan solo to Penn State’s Freshman Orientation. I spent most of the long drive marveling at my son’s ease behind the wheel, and the last half hour drinking in the beauty of the distant hills and the lush, historic campus where, all too soon, he’d live.
Upon arrival, families were given a whirlwind of a schedule. Campus tour, info sessions, Student Activities Fair. Finally, our students, as the good people of Penn State referred to the slouching, yet stoic teenagers, were whisked away for a night of dorm life. The parents were herded to a reception where we sat at large rectangular library tables with napkins of cookies and plastic cups of wine.
I should say here that I can be terribly shy with strangers, a trait that, thankfully, Ethan didn’t inherit. I munched on a cookie and smiled politely at the others at my table—all women, as it happened—and began plotting my escape. My picture of the evening involved room service and reading in bed, but when the most outgoing among us asked, “So who’s up for dinner and drinks?” everyone else at the table got up to follow, so I did the same.
In a noisy pub, six of us soon-to-be empty nesters shared our stories, admitted our fears, and alternately kvelled and kvetched about our kids. I was surprised and delighted by how quickly we grew comfortable with one other, and how close I felt to each of them by the end of the evening.
Ever since our spontaneous evening out, these lovely moms and I have kept the conversation flowing through an ongoing thread of text messages. We buoyed each other in the final weeks of summer, collaborated on shopping lists, and commiserated as we wrangled and cajoled our kids into doing their part to get ready.
Too soon, the day we’d been simultaneously gearing up for and dreading arrived. Friday, August 22. Move-in day. Only this time there was an odd woman out among us, and it was me. Though half our group were divorcees, I was the only one who wasn’t heading off to Happy Valley that morning to help my student settle in.
I was used to this. It was Richard’s turn. And, besides, his going made the most sense. He was the one with the car and the brawn to carry Ethan’s heavy gear from the parking lot up to the dorms. And unlike me, Richard was swift and efficient. He was also much less likely to embarrass our son by tearing up in front of his peers.
This is fine, I told myself, as my throat closed at the sight of Ethan’s discarded sneakers in the giveaway pile. A box of his favorite cereal in the cabinet. A sweatshirt he’d left draped on the back of a chair. This is what works for us, I insisted. But soon I had to admit I felt devastated. While my friends woke up in the morning, loaded their cars, and piled in next to their students, mine was already gone. He’d hugged Dan and me goodbye the night before while Richard waited in the car. I smiled, looked up at the man who had been my baby, told him how proud I was, and managed not to break into sobs until the apartment door closed behind me.
Now, my cell phone began to sound with the cheerful little dings of incoming messages, none of which were actually for me.
Looong car line to get anywhere near dorm!!
Where do they pick up their keys for East Hall?
We’re running to the grocery and then to lunch. Anyone want to grab some with us?
“Just turn it off for a while,” Dan suggested, hearing the groans that accompanied each text.
“Are you kidding?” I, who rarely, if ever, snap at him, snapped. “The next text could be from Ethan!”
But the day dragged on and the phone continued to chime with message after message, none of which were from him.
We’re going to Walmart—NEED desk lock. Need anything?
Tell your kids to grab Ella tonight. Roommate isn’t here until tomorrow!
FYI. Soccer game moved up to 5pm due to weather.
Maybe if my phone wasn’t sending me constant reminders of what I was missing, I wouldn’t have felt so heartbroken on that late summer day. But I don’t think so. I think I was simply wrong about myself. This time I wasn’t fine with only participating in half of Ethan’s process. I should have insisted that I go too. I should have been there helping him yank a fitted sheet onto his ridiculously narrow bed, unpack his t-shirts, hang a few posters. I should have been there to linger at goodbye.
Each time I melted into tears that afternoon, Dan held me, which was a great comfort. Before long, the Mom Contingent checked in too:
Ona, what have you heard from Ethan?
I imagine he’s doing exactly what you wished for him, settling into his new room, meeting new people, getting to know the lay of the land.
It’s very bittersweet today. I know it must have been tough not to be there.
All of it helped. And none of it did. It was just hard. It hurt in a place I wasn’t even aware existed inside me.
Ethan finally called early the next morning and I was surprised to hear in his voice a sadness and disbelief that matched my own. Immediately, I went into encouragement mode. I told him I knew the first few days can be really hard, but assured him that, before long, he’d feel totally at home.
“We’ll see you in October for your birthday,” I reminded him, as though that didn’t actually feel like it was years away. But when he said he missed me I found I’d spent all the false cheer I had, and so I told him the truth.
“I miss you more than I have words for,” I said.
When we got off the phone I cried, as I did at least once a day for the next week. But time, as it’s notorious for, eventually worked its magic. As Ethan got busy with classes, crew practices, and a world of new friends, I moved and set up house with Dan. Ethan and I are each on our own adventure but we talk often. His favorite time to call is as he walks from class back to the dorm. Meanwhile, I’ve been readying his new room—arranging his furniture, hanging his posters, making his bed with fresh sheets. After all, it’s finally October. He’ll be here in a matter of days.