As we pulled up to the dorm that I hadn’t bothered to learn the name of, my heart sank.
“Is this a dorm or a jail?” I thought but did not say.
“They’ve stuck all the juvenile delinquents in your dorm,” I thought but did not say.
“I’m not leaving you here,” I said, but then denied that I did.
Eight stories of bad 1960s architecture, sitting a mile north of the stately granite buildings of the University of Iowa (known for Big 10 football and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), this dorm did not appear in the glossy university brochure.
How will she get to school? Where is the fire escape? What if the elevator breaks down? Who will protect her from all the bad people? Why are there boys on her floor? My mind raced.
And then I learned that my daughter and I are not the same person.
“Holy crap, look at this beast,” she said.
“I’ve gotta take a picture of this,” she said.
“I’ve seen quite a few cute guys,” she said.
“It will be fine, Mom,” she said.
Why is it that, as mothers, we can send our kids halfway around the world to meaningful summer programs or send them to summer camps at the wee age of 7 without much drama, and then we bawl like babies and howl like banshees when we drop them off at college for the first time?
Why? Because it’s different. It’s the end of something and the beginning of a big fat question mark.
It doesn’t seem right to use the word “grief” to describe a minor transition like a child leaving for college, but grief is what I, and many of the mothers I know, feel.
“It’s a heartbreak,” one friend said after leaving her oldest son at a college in Florida. “I’ve never grieved like this before.”
“I woke up crying,” another mom said.
“He’s my baby,” another said.
We moved in what she had carried on the plane and then left the dreadful building that she now called home to explore the pretty campus.
In the Midwest, one goes north, south, east or west. One does not go toward the ocean or away from the Old Port. After we got lost several times (I know, it doesn’t make sense that we got lost), I said, “Just remember: If you really get lost, look to the sky. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.”
“Oh … my … God, Mom. Are you kidding me?” she said.
“Well, in a pinch it could help,” I said.
And then she looked up from her phone and said, “Wait. It rises in the east?”
In every couple, you need one rational person. In ours, that’s Frederick. After listening to me sob on the phone for a good 45 minutes, he sat down and wrote an email to his wife (me).
“Yesterday morning, driving down in the dark to the airport, I started to think about all the things that could go wrong: doesn’t like school, drop out, get bad grades, lose scholarship, get sick, hard to get there, hate roommates, it costs a jillion dollars to send her there.
“Then, I realized that the frame that ‘everything is going to go wrong’ completely misses the point of how good college is and what interesting things happen there: Things one is exposed to that you never even knew existed. Meeting good people who become friends for life, the chance to find out something that you want to do for life. Learning how to grow up and manage problems.
“For me,” he continued, “the life that I have now actually begun when I went to college, and if I had not gone to college and changed some stuff about who, what, how I am, then I would have ended up a very different person.
“The good stuff will evolve. She will definitely have some tough times, and she will have to learn how to manage some of life on her own. Which, I think, she is very capable of.” Signed, “Your loving husband.”
The next day, Target provided the therapy I needed. “Get whatever you want,” I said.
Later that day, sitting under a canopy of trees filled with cicadas, louder than any pond of peepers I have ever heard, I felt welcomed by Iowa City.
And when I asked a city worker dressed in his fluorescent orange vest if someone had dumped a piano on the sidewalk, he said, “No, they’re all over the city for people to use,” and then continued playing.
And when I walked into a shop filled with great gifts and told the store owner that I was in Iowa dropping off my daughter, she said, “If your daughter ever needs anything, just tell her to come here. I’m always here.”
Written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald, August 21, 2015