09/01/2012 09:29 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2012

Two Moms, A Van, and A Man

When my kids were toddlers, we bought a minivan. It was far from the sports car I'd always dreamed of, but served our family well. After nearly a decade, the van died and was replaced by a smaller, more gas-friendly vehicle that ushered in a new stage of parenting -- adolescence. Fast forward nearly five years to another minivan -- one in which my mother and I are preparing to move my oldest son, now a sophomore in college, to his first apartment 1,500 miles from home.

It was an unusually hot Southern California morning but I didn't need a thermometer to tell me what my mother's pink cheeks already did -- the mercury was rising, and we needed to get the show on the road or we were going to sweat to death. Planning for the trip began months before: ordering supplies online to make use of free shipping, directing the packages to my mom's place -- an hour's drive from the university. As the supplies came in, she moved them into her garage, alongside my son's bike and some of his freshman year storage. By the time my son and I arrived by plane last week, we had only his suitcases left to bring and some groceries to stock his cupboards.

That night, I fell asleep on my mother's couch -- the fan oscillating above my head -- thinking about all the things that could go wrong, from traffic delays, to his bike not fitting in the van, to a car accident on the freeway, to getting lost, to getting into an argument with my mother in a battle for control, to a flat tire. I thought about how difficult it had been to say goodbye at the same time last year -- his first year away at college -- and how I couldn't even go into his room at home for a few weeks after. It stood as a physical reminder of the ache in my heart for the baby I once had so many dreams for. Dreams he was, in fact, already achieving on his own.

Over the year he was away, I learned the ache was more about the sudden separation -- this child you have loved and who has been your focus for 18 years, is no longer around. You see his favorite foods at the grocery store, a movie he once memorized lines from, a song he sung as a child, and instead of it making you smile as it once did, it makes you cry. Over time, it became less and less sad and now, the young man who comes home for breaks is the sum total of all those memories, but even better -- he engages and is engaging and it's an exciting time to be a parent, just in a different way than it all started when you held him in your arms and said his name out loud for the first time.

I re-focused my thoughts instead on the order in which to load the van lent to us by my brother and sister-in-law. When I awoke, I had a plan which, much to my surprise, worked, and soon we were pulling up to his building where there was a traffic jam far worse than the freeway, vans of all makes honking and reversing, parking cops directing frantic parents, and kids pushing giant yellow moving bins filled with hangars, plastic drawers, and mattress pads, and a few lucky souls with 46 inch TV's.

A suitemate met him at the apartment door, and they talked for a few minutes before we loaded and unloaded the cart several more times, waiting patiently for the single elevator, working in tandem to get him unpacked. He didn't know any of his suitemates before today and was fine with that, though he'd hoped a reassignment would have come through by the midsummer cutoff date allowing one of his friends to join them. That day came and went and so he moved forward and took the news in stride. I, on the other hand, was a tad worried.

During his back and forths to the van, he ran into some people he knew. "Shultz" they called out to him, and I stood back and took it in, watching my once small child extend his hand and do a combo shake and half embrace that is the man hug for his generation.

While my mother and I washed the sum total of his kitchenware (two of each utensil, two plates, two bowls, two glasses, two pots) in his dishwasher-less kitchen, he began setting up the X-box he had saved for and bought with his own money, along with the second-hand TV that looks more like a laptop screen and was purchased from one of his roommates the previous year -- a deal he had negotiated on his own. At that moment in the unpacking process I would have opted for him to hang up his clothes or make his bed, but let him take the lead and tell me how I could help instead. As he crawled under his desk and moved wires here and there, he seemed to take pride in the task he was doing -- it was his first apartment and he was figuring out how to set up his stuff. I remembered doing something similar with an ungodly heavy TV, a single plug, and an antenna. He definitely had the harder job.

At some point after lunch he met another friend on the street, did the shake/man hug thing and I was aware that I was now in his world, not the other way around. My mother and I took a different route back to his place and by the time we got there, he told us he had briefly met the third of his suitemates who just learned the fourth suitemate had dropped out of school the day before.

Our eyes met.

After several calls to the friend he hoped could be a suitemate, and who was not scheduled to move to school for another twenty-four hours, then several more calls to his campus housing office, he got an email that said his fourth suitemate was now, in fact, the friend who had applied months before for the exact spot.

I think I may have actually jumped up and down.

Though the common area in his apartment was still bare -- there was nothing on the walls, not a single item on the university-provided and well-worn tables -- I had to resist the urge to buy a few Target throw pillows for their couch, along with a floor lamp, and shaggy rug. My mother did however, move a chair -- grandmothers can get away with anything.

By dinner time, when traffic had cleared, we said goodbye -- he was going to make himself something to eat and hopefully connect with a friend or two. I got a little misty-eyed and said his name as I turned around to take one last look at him standing in his doorway. It was easier to leave than it had been the year before -- partly because I had someone to leave with this time, and mostly because he had grown more confident by leaps and bounds, and so had I.

He would come home again with stories to share, perhaps a little taller still. He would certainly always appreciate a good meal made by his mother just as much as I appreciate the chance to sit across from him and watch him eat it.

My mother and I talked the whole drive home -- or maybe I just talked and she listened. Either way, we were both somewhere between exhausted and elated, marveling at the serendipity of the roommate scenario, and the young man my son, her grandson, had become. It was all a moving snapshot in time, shared by three generations, and made possible by a van that only hours ago was full with the contents of my son's life -- a van now empty, but that ultimately ushered in yet another stage of parenting for all of us.

On paper that minivan provided 150 cubic feet of space, enough to transport almost all my son's possessions. On this day it held a lot more than that.

Two Moms, A Van And A Man