I can’t believe you didn’t think to bring me a sweatshirt.
My middle son, Luke, seems genuinely agitated that my oldest son and I didn’t bring him a souvenir from the latest college tour/weekend visit. He has a closet full of t-shirts and sweatshirts accumulated over the last year as we’ve popped in and out of college bookstores up and down the east coast. But now we’ve arrived home empty-handed and full of stories about a school that has clearly emerged as his brother’s front-runner choice and Luke makes his feelings known as he stomps out of the room.
This is how we’ve been avoiding the imminent reality of a sibling leaving the nest—with sweatshirts and slammed doors. My three kids fight about who took the last Gatorade and who made them late to school and who gets the car keys this weekend. They’re on the couch, piled on top of each other, laughing over a TikTok video. A moment later they separate, hurling loud and vicious insults that crescendo with “I hate you all” and “I can’t wait to leave here and never come back.” My oldest, it seems, is adamant about having the last word in this dance I call the “long goodbye,” a ritual I remember painfully well from my own last summer at home over thirty years ago.
Remember that summer we just stopped speaking? My mother reminds me gently that sibling conflict is part of the process. She and I fought uncharacteristically for the first half of that last summer, and then we retreated to our corners and stopped speaking to each other until I left home. Goodbye, we were certain, was egregiously mis-named. It was, instead, very, very bad.
In my hasty retreat, I neglected to notice the effect of my departure on my four siblings, left behind as I headed off for college. Many years later, my sister would tell me those were the years she felt abandoned by me. I was shocked. I didn’t abandon you—I went to college, I gasped. You left, she simply said.
I think about this often as we navigate these final months together while my oldest is finishing up high school and preparing to leave for college. He seems to have exactly as much insight about how much he’s disrupting his siblings’ lives as I had when I was similarly situated—i.e., none.
And so I’ve decided to steal his thunder and have the last word instead. Here are the things I know he would say to his younger brother, Luke, if only he could pause his own complicated feelings—and the long goodbye—for just a moment.
1. He doesn’t want you to take his room. But not for the reasons you think.
You keep saying that the minute he leaves, you’re going to annex his room to yours. You have plans for extra shelves to house your sports memorabilia and extra t-shirts. He flies off the handle every time you even mention it. You’re aggravated that he could be so territorial over a room he won’t inhabit anymore. He’s getting a new room in a new building in a new city and it comes with no curfew, and so you can’t imagine how he could be so selfish as to deny you this one request. But really, the idea of his space in the house being eliminated is too much for him right now. He needs to know he can come home to every familiar thing, including you, any time he wants. At least for the time being.
2. He wants things to be easier for you.
When he barks at you about one test grade or your AP course selections or showing up to track pre-season on time, it’s not because he thinks he’s better than you. He doesn’t want you to take your eye off the ball for one minute, because he sees how competitive this process has been and he wants it to go easier for you. He’s cloaked in stress all the time, and he doesn’t want that for you. There are things he wishes he did and didn’t do that would have made the process easier with the same outcome. He’s trying to help you. It doesn’t sound that way, I know. But listen more carefully.
3. He’s scared.
This is the most exciting and ridiculous thing he’s ever done. He’s afraid of everything. Of failing. Of succeeding. He’s nervous about finding his way around campus and locating the dining hall. He’s afraid of making new friends and keeping old ones. Meanwhile, you’re staying behind in a place where you are incredibly comfortable, with friends and a well established routine. He’s anxious to leave, and ready to leave, but still, a little part of him is jealous that he doesn’t have a big brother to tell him exactly how to manage these next steps of the journey so he doesn’t have to do it first.
4. He’s going to miss you.
You two have navigated life together side by side for 16 years. Since the day we brought you home and he tried to blame you for the crayon drawing on the coffee table, he’s had a built-in playmate, scapegoat, shotgun rider, and teammate. You told me recently about an extracurricular activity that you both signed up for and then he decided not to pursue: I can’t imagine doing it without him. On the surface, you were just talking about a couple of Saturdays, but I felt the heaviness of your words. You’ve never known life without him. Sure he’s older, but he barely remembers life without you. If your brother’s being honest, he’d tell you, he can’t imagine doing it without you, either.
The good news is, on the other side of this long goodbye, the independent paths you forge will make your grownup relationships so much stronger. I know this from experience with my own siblings. Trust me when I say, you and your brother aren’t losing each other. You’re just transitioning from roommates to something more permanent. But for now, just know, he’s going to miss you, too.