Admission to college -- that sought-after golden carousel ring is not enough. In late August, paraphernalia is essential. Power Bars, Command Strips, Smart Wool socks -- merchandise emanating authority. Dutch courage for a price, armor. Our college-bound daughter takes some comfort in acquiring these new possessions. On the threshold between the life we've known and her departure, I slide my credit card, serve as Sherpa from store to home. We stuff the comforter into a huge bag, vacuum out the air, shrinking it into a manageable cube. The piles grow, spawn -- a Bed Bath & Beyond annex in our living room.
In well-organized expeditions, we purchase extra-long sheets, bed lifts, surge protectors that don't protect me from the unexpected surge of loss I feel in those last days. Overwhelmed by wide aisles and fluorescent lighting, she prefers to make more trips for fewer items; we load mattress pads and bed bug protectors into metal carts. Clothes pose a challenge, since she has worn a uniform her whole school life. There are more trips to the mall, sorting and weeding of items outgrown or unworthy.
On Facebook, some moms grieve as their children leave for college. I am disdainful, having done this once before. We have an older daughter safely ensconced in an East Coast campus. When that first daughter left, I did not feel bereft. I wept a bit at our goodbye, but she launched herself into college, chirping with joy at every class, each new experience. She was ready. This daughter is more apprehensive. Though through childhood, she was the bolder one; somehow, their roles have flipped. The older one bounds back for Junior year, while the younger is less convinced that college will be the clichéd best four years of her life.
As this second daughter's departure looms, I play the role of Ancient Egyptian underling, equipping the mighty Pharaoh for life in the underworld. College is a grand adventure, not a death, I remind myself sternly, but I am conscious of the symbolism of this next life for her. Putting everything in order feels like a talisman -- if all objects are stowed correctly, she will be safe, happy.
Some years ago, before either daughter left home, I saw, late in August, a couple in Target, their cart filled -- towels, bathmat, clip-light, plastic drawers. Their faces looked crumpled; the mother had been crying. The father looked a little vacant. They paused in the aisle, silent, as if they had forgotten what they had come to find. Will it be like this for us? Will we wander, aimlessly, feeling heavy and abandoned? I wondered where in the store their college-age child was -- in electronics? Picking out socks? Choosing a comforter?
The first comforter arrived in a big box and was rejected: not soft enough, color different from the catalogue photo, just wrong. Because her bed is her sanctuary, the comforter must be right. Comforter. Comfort her. That's my job. In advance, I miss the heavy swish of her long dark ponytail, her efforts to keep the refrigerator organized, her besotted love of our smallest dog. I miss the mess of her room and her presence at the dining room table doing homework, drinking tea I miss hearing her Skype with her sister, the cadence of her voice through her bedroom door. But I endure, refusing to cease our frenzied preparations in case I start to cry and make it harder for her.
"Stop," I tell myself. "She's fine; she's going to college; this is what she's worked for, what she wants, what we want for her."
Yet melancholy is hard to vanquish. She does go, of course, and we return home, her little brother and her dad and I. The house has changed. Both our daughters are off at college, finding their way, living in some version of the world. And we, at home, do the same, as families must. But the space stretches out, into the future. I miss the everyday-ness of her.
It's not a death. I know the difference between real grief and temporary longing and so does this daughter. In the winter of her Junior year, her beloved friend died in an accident. For months, I held her as she wept, knowing that her grief was too big for language, too huge for anything but my embrace, and knowing, too, that she would not always feel so sad, but that she would never completely forget that excruciating chapter. And even as I held her, I felt so guilty and so lucky to hold my daughter in my arms. Death is forever. I know that college is a part of life, that we will get better at separation, that she must know I am okay in order to be happy away from home.
A few weeks in, she phones, weeping. "What if something happens to one of you?" she sobs. "What if you die?"
"Don't be ridiculous. We have no plans to die. Don't let your imagination run away with you," I admonish. Secretly, some small part of me understands, worries that harm could befall her, too. And I might not be there to be of use. To comfort. She pulls herself together and hangs up abruptly. My friend Lisa says that for adolescents, parents are the side of the swimming pool; they rest against us when they need a break and then, restored, swim back into deep water. My daughter paddles off, and I put my own dark thoughts away. We all have fears but we can't let them win.
Implicit in the beginning of this next chapter is the end of how it has been. My daily parenting of this daughter included keeping gluten-free products stocked in the fridge, listening for the latch on the back gate, knowing that even at 18 she is a terrible sleeper and sometimes comes to our room, sad from a dream about her lost dear friend. I have been the comforter. I will still be, but if all goes well, her need for comfort will diminish. She will cry less often into the grey linen duvet cover she finally chose. And I will, too.