January 28, 2022
In the months leading up to my son’s college freshman move-in day, I laid awake in bed at night, the hot summer air wafting in through my bedroom window, and wondered about the last hug in his dorm room. How on earth would I get through that final goodbye?
He was my firstborn, and he was going to college. Somehow I was supposed to live apart from him, with a piece of my heart in his dorm room. I didn’t think it was possible.
As move-in weekend approached, I found myself practicing for the big day. I insisted on hugging him before he went out with his friends. I held on tight, tried to imagine the future when I had to say a longer goodbye. My antics mildly amused him.
And then, the big day came. Because of pandemic precautions, only two family members were allowed in our son’s dorm for the move-in process. Which meant our daughter had to stay behind in the hotel room. She only had enough time to lob some last-minute jokes and hug him in the hotel lobby before he had to rush off and say goodbye.
Move-in day was chaos.
I didn’t have time to dwell on their abrupt parting or my anxiety about our farewell. My husband and I were too busy coordinating with other parents how to move our three strapping teen boys into a triple dorm room. Frankly, the universe seemed to know what it was doing: cramming three anxious moms, three bewildered dads, and three semi-annoyed teens into the middle of move-in hell ended with us all practically begging to say goodbye.
Spoiler alert: Launching my son into his new college life was less heart-wrenching than I expected. I made it through that goodbye hug, and all the tears that followed—his and mine.
But then, at the restaurant near campus where we took our daughter for lunch, we all sat quietly, trying to get used to our new normal. While I chippered about the lunch specials, and my husband wondered about traffic home the next day, my daughter sat quietly with tears rolling down her cheeks. Instantly, my heart broke.
The goodbye I dreaded—the one between mother and son—hadn’t been nearly as hard as the goodbye between my son and my daughter.
No one told us to practice for that scenario. Still, I should have known.
My son and daughter are thick as thieves. He’s tall and lanky to her petite frame. He’s the bull in a china shop to her introverted and studious ways. He’s the theater performer who loves the spotlight; she lights the stage in the back of the house on the tech crew.
Opposites in every way, yet joined at the hip. With only two years between them, they share the same interests and their friend groups comprise the older and younger siblings of several families. In short, they’re best friends.
For years, they’ve carved out time for each other on Thursday nights to watch Marvel movies or whatever show they’re currently binging. When I see them together, I feel like I’m intruding on a meeting of a secret club, complete with their own language and jokes I’ll never understand.
Now my daughter needed to navigate her daily life without her brother.
“It’s Thursday,” she said. “I guess we can’t watch TV together tonight.”
Her grief hit me harder than my sadness in all the months leading up to move-in. I cried with her.
Then, as if on cue, as if he knew the scene unfolding at our table, my son texted. Could we bring his sister back to the campus for a few minutes?
“Please? I don’t need to see you or Dad, just her. It won’t take long, I promise.”
We finished lunch. We walked back to campus. We showed our daughter the entrance to his dorm.
When she emerged from the building fifteen minutes later, she was beaming. My son had taken her on a quick tour of his dorm so that she could see where he’d be living.
“He said that now that I’ve been in the building, it’ll feel more like home,” she gushed.
She shared that they took a selfie, which he has since added to his dorm room wall of family and friends. The picture shows them together wearing expressions characteristically silly. When I saw it, I knew they’d be okay.
These days, when I hear my daughter late at night, belly laughing with her brother and his roommates on FaceTime, or when he texts me to make sure she calls him when she gets home from school, I’m sure they’ve learned how to stay close through separation.
Now when he comes home for winter break and I see them snuggled on the couch for their Thursday ritual, our goodbyes aren’t so hard anymore. They’ve shown us our family bonds are strong.