Sarah's gone. After almost eighteen years of traveling light, she left this time with two big suitcases, one of them substantially over the weight limit; two huge boxes that my husband broke down into six smaller ones once they arrived on the other coast, terrified that we'd sprain our middle-aged backs if we tried to lift them; and bags from various stores that knew what we needed better than we did.
The reason for all the stuff? The ratio of time at home to time away has shifted, as it has for about 3.2 million kids who start their freshman year in college this fall. Mostly, now, she lives in the dorm. Back-to-school is one thing. Gone to school, as it turns out, is something else again.
In an eleven-hour marathon scented with Simple Green and Seventh Generation liquid cleaners, we erased the residue of last year's freshman occupant and crammed our daughter's new life into half a little bedroom at a Major University a five-hour nonstop flight from our house.
For weeks before we left, people asked me, 'How do you feel?', or 'How are you handling this?', to which my response was always the helpless same: "I don't know. It hasn't happened yet."
But now it has -- we had our first iChat yesterday -- and the answer is, I still don't know. The one question that stymied us each time it arose was, 'What is your address?', because the correct answer has always been the home she's lived in all her life. That's still the right answer, since these are forms from people who want to send us bills or otherwise track us down during the undergraduate years, but now it is slightly tinged with sentimentality. If I look too far ahead, I see that Sarah might never live in this house again, except for vacations; if I look too far ahead, I begin to pray for the things parents of older children dread, like having a college grad move back in while she figures out what she wants to do with her life.
I am superstitious enough to contemplate deleting the phrase 'Sarah might never live in this house again' in case printing it makes it true. I settle instead for self-chastisement. How dumb to think about the apocalypse.
Truly, the key to sanity is not to predict any further than tonight's dinner, and to avoid certain songs, foodstuffs, movies, and neighborhood locations destined to provoke tears. Alternatively, I might wallow on purpose and see if a good cry makes things better, but at this point I tear up even at mommy-love lines in a commercial for a movie that everyone says is awful, so I don't quite trust myself to take that chance, not yet. Most likely, I'll try to get my work done, pet the dog double-time to compensate for her missing owner, and find out if there are waterproof cell phones you can take into the shower.
The odd thing, so far, is that I find I can't write about Sarah's new home in any detail -- can't divulge the specifics of how she turned that tiny space into something that was unmistakably her, can't describe the quilt cover she picked out or tell you which books she brought from home, can't talk about her roommates or the contents of the refrigerator or even the color of the shelf paper in what passes, in dorm lingo, for a kitchen. Out of respect for her new life, I feel that I ought to stick to talking about my side of the transition, even though talking about hers is so much fun.
In the days immediately after move-in, when I lingered in her new hometown longer than I had to, I listened to myself being an idiot with strangers, including but not limited to the doormen at the building where I stayed in a friend of a friend's apartment, occupants of various elevators who made the error of striking up a conversation, old friends of my husband's, new friends of mine. The most offhanded 'how are you?' got a real answer, not just the reflexive, 'fine, how're you?' I was proud, lonely, and stunned at the wonderfulness of having a daughter who was seventeen, in a grand city, surrounded by interesting people, with the bills paid. I wanted anyone and everyone to appreciate the magnitude of the launch, which is no less profound for being common.
About once an hour, in a more private setting, I'd root around in my bag for my cell phone, certain that she'd called, sure that I'd missed her and there would be a text message or a voicemail waiting for me -- and hoping at the same time that I was wrong, because of course one wants one's freshman to be so completely happy with her new life that she doesn't think to call. My husband flew back before I did, and at some point in every one of our conversations I'd say, out of nowhere, "So. She hasn't called yet."
The big achievements of that first week? I did not call her first, which took a level of self-discipline usually reserved for things like nightly flossing and the consumption of cruciferous vegetables. I will admit to occasionally checking my cell phone's address book, to make sure her phone number was still among the essential phone numbers at the head of the list, the ones preceded by a capital A -- and to sometimes clicking on the number, and once to going so far as to create a text message with the marvelous speed-write feature she taught me to use before she left. I never hit 'Call' or 'Send,' though. I waited for her to decide when she wanted to talk to me.
When she did call, after a mere two days that were each a hundred years long, it was on her terms. She told me this and that; she took the information she asked me for and ignored the unsolicited stuff. She accepted my invitation to take her out to dinner.
At that moment, life with a daughter in college was just about perfect -- but then, that was before I got home to all the familiar stuff, from the dog to her bedroom to the three shirts we forgot to pack. The empty nest didn't feel quite so empty when I was staying in that borrowed apartment, which is in great part why I didn't go straight home. I liked the illusion that my daughter and I still lived in the same city. I prefer to sneak up on reality slowly.