When Your Only Daughter Leaves For College

08/31/2016 01:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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I have one daughter, and during the turbulence of her volatile teenage years we both counted down the days until she left for college.

"I'm leaving in 458 days!" she would retort.

"That's great!" I replied. "I've already rented your room to a group of caustic clowns. They'll be more respectful."

But on the good days, the anticipation was tempered with sadness. One day she called me to come into her room to listen to her new Dido CD, No Angel. We sat on her bed, just as we did when she was little, and enjoyed the moment. After the song "Thank You" played, she said she would make me a copy. I still have it.

Life has an ornery way of kicking you in the gut. Just about the time you shriek in anguish about picking up one more dirty sock, the kids pack up their clothes and leave. Only yesterday, she was going to elementary school with her pink lunch box. It's just not fair. I wanted another chance to be the mother she always wanted, the mother she wanted to take with her.

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The day I drove away after taking her to college I cried so hard that I had to stop the car. This action irritated the drivers behind me so eventually I had to pull over to the side of the road. Then I howled like a wounded beast with snot oozing from my nose, tears streaking down my weathered face, and stooped shoulders jerking from the involuntary reaction to my heaving sobs. My creative, pianist, thespian, light-filled daughter lived in another state without me. She didn't need me, and I was old. Yes, I was a pathetic mess.

My 15-year-old son, with only a daytime learner's permit to drive, volunteered to drive 500 miles in the dark to get us home. I was going through a divorce which exasperated my pitiful loss of control. After traveling 100 miles, I finally stopped whimpering. My son didn't say anything but kept his hands at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock. After five hours, I was so grateful for his maturity that I offered to help him buy a pickup truck. He eagerly accepted and realized his new gig as man of the house and only child could be rewarding.

The first time she came "home" was for Christmas break, and together we learned a new dance for our mother and child reunion. Some things stayed the same: she slept in her old room, joked with her younger brother, and left cluttered clumps of clothes and books on the stairs. Other things were different: she was more independent, and at times seemed like a visitor. When she went out with friends, she said, "You don't need to wait up for me." I did, anyway.

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She was a young adult and doing well in college. I knew her friends, and they were all experiencing the same hopes and fears of being a college freshman. When she went out, I sat alone in my room and reminisced about the difficult promise I made to give her roots and wings. When she came home in the wee hours of the morning, she stopped by my door and said, "You can go to bed now, Mom. Love you." That's when I knew she would be okay.

When it was time for her to return to college, we had one last conversation to go over what I called Mom's Eight Commandments. I didn't carve them into stone tablets, but I did offer them with profound sincerity. I vaguely remember her eyes rolling upward at the time.

1. Don't go out with a guy who says you're smart/beautiful/awesome and then claims he's a pre-med student. I made that mistake and learned, much to my chagrin, that the guy couldn't spell the word medical and he told other coeds the same line. Be very discriminating with the people you date, and it's okay to be alone. Trust me.

2. Be smart about sex, and remember that you don't owe anybody anything and if a guy buys dinner that doesn't mean you're dessert.

3. Don't do drugs. Please take this poster of what kids look like after they have done meth and tack it to your dorm wall. You are too amazing to look like that. And it really scares the crap out of me.

4. Don't spend all your money on beer and cheap jewelry. Learn how to budget. You'll thank me later.

5. Make and keep girlfriends. When life gets too wonderful or too dreadful, they will be there for you.

6. Know I love you even though we slammed doors and yelled at each other. Someday you'll have children and you'll know that parents try their best. I had never been a mother before and you were new at being human, so we learned together. I made mistakes, and you will, too. But you, my first born, were my first true love.

7. Study hard and graduate so you can get a rewarding job with a good salary so you can take care of me in my old age.

8. Volunteer to help others in need and gather strength from your internal spirit. The world can be ugly and cruel, but you can bring sunshine, songs, and laughter to your little corner. Remember to avoid crabby people because pessimists will suck out your soul.

Of all the special occasions parents celebrate with their children, the college experience involves the most traumatic for the parent. First grade was important, as was the first day of high school. But the first day of college signals the end of the familiar living arrangements. College students don't live at home anymore, they visit. And that's as it should be. But I still stand at the door when she drives away, and I wave long after she disappears from view. Sometimes I leave the light on, just in case she needs to return. Maybe she'll have some new music she wants me to hear.

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