'The Longest Goodbye'
On Teddy’s last day at home I start a new journal. My friend Ann, who has walked this road already, suggested that I write down a few “key images and a few key moments” as we get him ready to go. “You will have lots and lots of emotions when you send that boy off … [and] you won’t feel like that forever,” she said.
So I opened a new journal, with crisp, lined pages, and I prayed the story would be as tidy. I don’t want to forget this time, no matter how shattering. I want to remember every fleeting thought, every gasping breath, all the sudden moments of realization.
It was Jeffrey’s first day of school, so when he was ready to leave, I stood in the driveway in my pajamas and snapped pictures of my boy with his backpack. Then I returned to the house, Teddy still sleeping upstairs, and noticed there were crumbs on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. How do crumbs come to be there at the bottom of the stairs? The thought came that in a couple years there will be few crumbs spilled in this house. And I let them be.
The dining room has been our staging ground for college and before the night fell we finished packing the minivan with Rubbermaid containers and suitcases and under-the-bed boxes. The tomatoes I picked from the garden watched us come and go, growing soft from neglect on the counter.
Later, we ate pizza from his favorite Italian eatery, played a family game of Yahtzee, and watched an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. His grandparents stopped by to hug him one last time and I saw how he moves around inside of our love, breathing deep of home.
In the morning, our little valley is thick with fog. When I walk outside with Bonnie, I feel I might disappear. Part of me is slipping away — I am a mamma of a grown boy who is leaving. Every nook and cranny of my life is haunted. We pull out of the driveway in the mist — invisible, ghosting across the morning.
When we get off the interstate to turn onto route 35, the light is broken — stuck on red — and it feels like the longest goodbye. A flock of geese appear out of the white, honking. They rise over the intersection in a flying V, taking my heart up, up, up. Fat birds huddle on the power lines, hunched against the dew that clings to the heavy air. Along route 35 there is corn, and soybeans, and Queen Anne’s Lace. A crow flies parallel us, muted. There are shadow barns rising up out of the fog, memories from another day. Everywhere I look, I am haunted.
Two miles from Pt. Pleasant, the sun finally wins her battle with the heavy fog. We cross the Ohio on the Silver Memorial Bridge with the sun as witness, those still waters shining like glass.
It is a long drive, on winding roads but we arrive in excitement and anxiety. As we move Teddy into the dorm, my path crosses a man sitting with his head in his hands. “My daughter,” he says. “I’m not handling it very well.” I want to hug him, but his face is already pinched, so I just nod my understanding and rest my hand on his shoulder a moment. He helps us carry boxes down the stairs.
The first day is hard, made harder by that special kind of anxiety that is part of our son. Walking away feels a little like a slow death, even though I know this is the best thing.
The next day is Sunday. We all slept fitfully and are emotionally exhausted. But I take communion on the lawn with the college community, and I am fortified. When I look at my son’s face, he already seems older to me. I cannot keep from touching him. There is a formal convocation, where the faculty wears full academic regalia and the new students promenade in to music played by a brass band. We squirm in our seats but when I listen to the words of the speakers, they name us.
The Vice President for Student Affairs, Meredith Harper Bonham, quotes the writer Ann Patchett. “Sometimes the circumstances at hand force us to be braver than we actually are. And so we knock on doors and ask for assistance. Sometimes not having any idea where we are going works out better than we possible could have imagined.”
And the college president, Sean Decatur, draws from the laws of thermodynamics and catalysis/reaction dynamics to illustrate to the students,
Catalysts do not make the molecules on which they act comfortable … it raises the energy of the molecule to be transformed. It’s the thermodynamic equivalent of applying stress and strain on a system, making a molecule uncomfortable, forcing it out of its resting state. This is the power of a Liberal Arts education: the power of ideas to challenge us, to provoke us, to force us out of our resting states; to make us uncomfortable. The transformations we undergo … are deeply embedded with this notion of challenge, rigor, and being prodded towards discomfort. So to embrace the power of Kenyon as a catalyst, you should embrace this notion of discomfort. You will encounter ideas and concepts in your classes, in your readings, in your discussions on campus … that will make you feel uncomfortable. This discomfort is not something to be avoided, nor is the source of this discomfort something to be passively accepted; rather, you should confront these head-on; you should struggle with these; you should tangle with these over the course of your education. For these challenges will propel both you and the world around you to advance and move forward.”
When the service is over, I see in his face that Teddy heard and felt named too. We hug him goodbye amidst the bustle of his classmates and their families. We walk away from him with repeated furtive glances back. But this haunting? This emptiness that I now know will I will always carry with me when he is far away? This is the discomfort I will embrace.
I’m being braver than I actually am. I have no idea where we are going. But I think it might work out better than I possibly could have imagined.