I collapsed on the Long Island Rail Road on my way to the office when I was about 7 months pregnant with my first child. I was a New York City trial attorney at the time and, while I had a flair for the dramatic, that day was a little excessive even for me.
The train had to be stopped, and medics summoned, as I lay in the aisle covered by a kind conductor’s jacket while an overhead announcement bleated:
Please pardon the delay. This train is stopped for a medical emergency. Please pardon the delay. This train is stopped…
After a short ambulance ride, I got a morning off from work along with an electrolytes-laced IV bag and a firm scolding by an emergency room doc about breakfast and water and the hazards of dehydration during pregnancy.
“When was the last time you felt movement?” he asked.
I felt a wave of panic as I sorted through my short-term memory and came up empty. The doctor quickly swirled an ultrasound wand around my belly and interrupted his scolding just long enough to point at the screen and say: “All good. The baby is just fine.”
I gasped in relief as I focused in on the shadows and light moving together and apart to form the image of a kicking, squirming creature still safely cocooned in what would continue to be his home for the next few months.
Oh. I thought. Here you are.
This memory comes back to me, perfectly intact, as I walk with that same child, now a 17-year-old high school senior on a university campus several hours from home.
He’s walked the campuses of half a dozen schools so far. But this one seems different. We are far away—in time and geography—from that New York City emergency room. And yet, there is something faintly reminiscent of that day.
As I watch him talk to the tour guide, professors, deans and students at this particular school, I see the awakening in him, the excitement, the leaning into a possibility. I feel it too. We are still connected, he and I. The thread is thin, but it’s still there.
In fact, this college search process has started to feel more and more like pregnancy to me. Nauseating and beautiful and hard and natural. Similar to when I was pregnant, I realize I’m not the first mother to go through any of this, and I’m not the least bit special to be in the midst of it. And still I feel, during every exquisite moment, that somehow no one else has experienced this whole thing in quite this way. Which is patently false, and yet, also true.
And then there’s the horrible truth, you see. The inevitable bittersweet ending of this phase of our lives sits in the back of my mind where I refuse to retrieve it.
Just like when I was pregnant, and more than a little fearful about that whole childbirth thing, I try not to think about how this college search phase of our life will actually end, either. I try to just stay present in the moment we’re in now—when he’s close by and things are easier (relatively speaking) and we’re still connected, and maybe I feel like collapsing now and again, but he’s definitely doing okay, and that’s all that matters, right?
While I was a first generation college graduate, I come from a long line of fierce women who didn’t need a college degree to teach me plenty. After my son was born, my mother held me and said “Now, I’ll tell you what my grandmother said to me when you were born. And apparently to your grandmother, when I was born. Which is: It’s wonderful but also terrible. Because now your heart will forever walk around outside your body.”
It’s no small thing to give up your child to the world—at the end of nine months, or at the end of 18 years.
I’m starting to wonder if I’ll be able to do it with any kind of grace and dignity. After all, I do have a flair for the dramatic, as we’ve seen.
As we walk around the college campus on this particular day, I turn to my son, no longer a boy, towering over me, gentle and sensitive but also fierce and confident. “So?” I ask, already knowing what he’s going to say.
“I could actually see myself here,” he confirms.
I can too. I look ahead in time, and I see him walking a campus without me. If not this one, a similar place where he’ll join clubs and study groups and work hard and make new and lasting friendships. I imagine his future unfolding before him, in all its lustrous brilliance. And I am grateful and sad, a little sick to my stomach, and dizzy as I picture him happy and thriving and coming into his own far away from me, in a place where the last vestiges of our 18-year connection will finally snap apart.
I’m pulled back into the moment again after what I realize is a long pause. Out of the future— where he’ll launch vibrantly on this campus, or one just like it—and out of the past, where he first asserted his independence from me just by being born.
“What do you think?” he asks, waving his hand around at the campus, like we’re still talking about biochem labs and student resident halls and dining plans, and nothing more.
I smile at the memory of that emergency room visit where I comforted myself after a panic-stricken morning with the realization that I had him all to myself for a few more months. Cocooned. It’s the same feeling of poignant relief now. I know how fleeting it is, so I lean into it.
Oh. I sigh. Here you are.