08/25/2014 05:04 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Are You Ready for College?

There's a reason roller coaster rides don't end at the bottom of a steep drop. You need time to adjust. Being home after taking our daughter to college was like crashing into a brick wall at highway speed. I suppose it's possible to survive that kind of trauma, but you're not going to be in very good shape for a while.

The day we packed the car and started the three-day trip to New York didn't feel as strange as I'd expected. We'd left on big adventures before. We'd only been home a few days, as a matter of fact, from a trip to Europe to celebrate Katie's graduation from high school. We'd even emptied entire rooms of the house in preparation for a home renovation.

This felt like just another trip we were taking together. Returning home without Katie was impossible to process.

My husband and I got up before she did and got organized. We had hours of packing ahead of us, and Darrell cracked me up when I brought him coffee. "So," he said. "Are we ready to go, then?" Maybe I was punchy from too little sleep, but I took it as a good sign he could still make me laugh on such a sad day.

He was weepy all morning, which surprised me. He kept pulling me aside for still another break from the work to tell me something sweet, like what a great mom I'd been. Then he said, "I am so glad I'm married to you. Everything good that's happened in the past 20 years has been because of you."

How did he know what I most needed to hear? I didn't! But what a gift for all three of us, a marriage that appeared ready to weather the mother of all transitions.

Katie took a last long drive on her moped while Darrell packed the car and I got a little weepy myself. I started to refill her water bottle and then realized, no need. Into the recycling tub it went. I wondered what to do with the coffee mug she was leaving behind. Keep it handy, to remember how much I loved doting on her? Or stash it, as if I could forget? On still another trip to her dressing room I rounded that corner in the basement and was overcome, as usual, by a heavenly mix of lotion and perfume and hair products. I would miss her scents.

Our car broke down the next day near Valparaiso, Indiana, and I was secretly -- and irrationally -- relieved. Maybe we'd never make it to New York after all. I watched us decide who'd wait with the Honda while the others arranged for a tow. I realized with delight there was nothing to do that evening -- now that the car was safely ensconced with a mechanic -- besides eat and shop and take in a movie, of all things. It was just another lovely summer evening in the life.

We rented a car the next day and got back on the road. New York University gives incoming freshmen a three-hour window to move into their residence halls, and we drove most of Saturday night to make that Sunday deadline. Sunday morning we looked through photos from Katie's graduation party display and didn't rush the conversation a bit. That was important.

We made our way into Manhattan, got her settled and stocked, had our moments and walked away from campus toward a cute little pastry shop to enjoy treats at a table on the sidewalk.

I couldn't believe how relatively OK I felt. Of the three of us, I'd been the least weepy. I almost worried I wasn't crying enough. Katie later told me what a relief that had been, how well I kept it together. Maybe, I thought to myself, all the work I'd done since her first day of kindergarten was paying off.

It was only as Darrell and I headed west on the George Washington Bridge that night I realized, What a crock. There's no way to brace for this kind of pain, and no way to know when it will hit.

Now. It was hitting now.

New York City's my favorite place in the world, and nothing in the way of saying goodbye to our little sweetheart would let me forget it. Talk about a soft landing! Suddenly I was leaving not only Katie, but New York behind, and I felt gutted.

I cried so hard I almost forgot how to breathe. I'd never hurt quite like this, and I didn't know if I'd survive it. What could possibly be the point of anything, I wondered, without Katie?

The next morning we woke up in the same hotel we'd stayed in with her the night before, and I saw a message from her in my inbox. It's probably the sweetest letter I've ever read, and it included links to a few of her favorite songs. I couldn't wait to reply.

"I'm having difficulty believing all those silly things I've said in the blog," I wrote in part. "Like the one you so often tease me about: 'The best gifts are wrapped in pain.' But just as I type that I realize what a gift you are to the world, and have been to us. Letting you go was the price we had to pay for that. Worth it, definitely. But it hurts so much!" And a bit later, "You know the first thing I'll do when we get home is find those songs, listen to them on repeat, and keep crying. That's the plan. To just keep crying! Because the more I can let myself feel how difficult this is, the better my odds of one day moving on and doing something really special with my life -- besides being your mom. I will never love a job as much as I have loved that one, Katie.

There was more, but you get the idea.

I wonder if I'll always be a college mom in recovery. Then again, I had a front-row seat to an amazing show. I got to watch Katie grow up. Maybe I'll learn how to do the same.