I Just Left My College Freshman Alone In Her Dorm, And I Can’t Stop Crying
It’s hard enough under normal circumstances, but a global pandemic only makes “goodbyes” that much harder
It was 2005 and Moms were all gathered in the school parking lot, crying. Hugging. Comforting each other. As I approached, I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. “It’s just kindergarten,” I thought. “You’re going to see them again in, what — a few hours?” As for myself (a mom of 3 kids under age 10 at the time), I was eager to get back home and start working on my next project: basking in the sound of silence.
What was before me — a devastated, parking lot Mom huddle —just seemed so foreign. I was more of the 1996-Staples-back-to-school-TV-commercials mindset. You know, the commercials that featured jubilant parents dancing across school supply aisles as their children looked on with resentment. Underscored, of course, by Andy Williams’ Christmas classic, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
After talking to the Moms, I realized it wasn’t simply the act of dropping their kids off for their first days of kindergarten. It was everything else. All the little details. It was all the worries and what-ifs. “What if they get separated from their class? Or lost?” “What if they can’t find anyone to play with at recess?” “What if the teacher or other students are unkind?” One Mom explained, “I keep thinking of her little hands cupped around her money in the lunch line, you know… doing it all by herself for the first time ever. Is she ready for this? Is she feeling scared? Will she be okay? It’s just overwhelming.”
These concrete things, I could understand. Specific fears made more sense, I guess. But the parking lot huddle, the prolonged crying, the principal’s weekly offerings of “coffee & kleenex” for the sole purpose of helping these folks cope with their kids going to public school for a few hours a day was still too much for me. Overkill.
As I was getting back in my car and waving goodbye to the Moms, one of them yelled out, “Hey, wait a minute… How are you not crying?” I smiled a little as I proudly responded, “I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time. I can’t wait to get home and take a long, hot bath with no interruptions. I’ll probably make up for it the day they leave for college. That’s when I’ll cry.”
If only I knew then exactly how true that statement would end up being now, I don’t think I’d have been so cavalier about it all. So haughty and critical — judging these Moms in silence for their very real, totally valid feelings of loss. Especially in what must’ve felt like a rapidly changing tide, a world where perhaps they saw their roles, their identities, becoming less necessary with each passing moment.
After all, the first day of college seemed so far away. I guess I never bothered worrying about it.
This week my husband and I moved our daughter into her college dorm while a global pandemic raged in the background. Like many other parents, this was a first for us. And because these are such unprecedented times, public schools and college campuses all over the U.S. are having to be really creative. Flexible beyond the norm.
Folks from all walks of life and in every field have been tested and pushed beyond the threshold of human endurance with the constraints of COVID-19. Especially the front line (and other essential) workers.
Five months ago, constraints were suddenly thrust upon us, only to be partially or fully lifted some time later. In some areas, the limits and lockdowns were reinstated for a second time, while in other areas, never enforced to begin with. These constraints affected everything from our unnecessary whims and indulgences, all the way down to our basic survival necessities. Not to mention the toll that COVID-19 has taken on our mental and physical health, or the fact that our current government leaders have vastly and ineptly mismanaged this entire health crisis from the outset.
K-12 schools all over the nation are about to re-open in one way or another. Teachers, already overworked and underpaid, are about to be thrust into trial by fire. Again. Pushed beyond the brink of normal expectations. And if expert predictions are correct, we face yet another spike in positive cases for this novel coronavirus, once again forcing doctors and hospitals to bear the brunt of the physical and psychological damage.
All of this is enough to challenge the emotional health of the strongest among us. But add to that the act of sending your first kid off to college, and it’s like being pushed one step too far, being sent over the edge.
She’s been at college about a week now. And I still can’t stop crying.
The move-in part was certainly an experience. It was definitely bizarre moving our child into a near-empty and silent dorm when traditionally, this day would be bustling with activity, adrenaline and excitement. For us, a socially-distanced college entrance meant not only hauling heavy items in the oppressive southern heat, but doing so with the additional unwelcome layer of face masks, sweat, and silence.
More importantly is what this all means for our daughter, and so many others like her who are moving out into the “real world” in this pandemic, taking steps towards independence, but without the comforts we expect to come with the whole college experience. Like, in our daughter’s case, having roommates, or social events to attend. Or for that matter, in-person gatherings where young adults can actually make friends on a campus where, otherwise, they know nobody. Her classes will be a hybrid, some in-person but socially-distanced, others, online only.
This, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the expectation that any or all of this could change at any time without warning.
College during a global pandemic, for our social girl, means going to the dining hall either alone, or in appropriately socially distanced small groups. It means either sitting alone, or two together, but only one person at either end of a very long table, too far away to chat. The choice is either that, or getting your food in to-go boxes, taking it back to your dorm room and eating alone.
It means having a duffel bag packed and ready to go at all times, in case the college should have to unexpectedly shut down, essentially evicting all students from campus (even as we pay full tuition). It means free counseling services for students that are only available via telehealth — online — which simply isn’t the same as one-to-one therapy for anybody in crisis. (Yes, it’s better than nothing, but definitely not ideal).
A socially-distanced college experience means, for our daughter, no face-to-face contact with her R.A., fellow students (at least for a while), and many of her professors, as certain classes will be offered online only. It means that, aside from move-in day, parents, siblings, grandparents, and outside friends cannot visit. At all.
Our daughter has been ready for college since the 7th grade; it’s a running joke in our family, but it’s not that far from reality. She’s always had a thirst for new adventures and a fearlessness in leaving home. Her fierce independent streak is something that’s always made her her, and I’m so proud of that. She’s far braver than I’ve ever been.
In her sophomore year of high school, she took on her own college planning, including the financial aid and scholarship paperwork. When it was finally time to go shopping last spring, she had her dorm room measurements and dimensions memorized. She knew what she could and could not bring, and had built a whole Pinterest board full of d.i.y. and other budget-friendly ideas. She did all of this while maintaining good grades throughout high school and holding down a part-time job that often, had her working as much as 38 hours per week.
When COVID-19 happened, she’d just received a package in the mail containing her graduation announcements, cap & gown, and other senior items. It was a Friday in March. Before school could resume Monday, we received word of it closing for at least two weeks. Who knew how much longer?
Our daughter never got to wear her newly purchased senior prom dress. She never got to say goodbye to many of her school friends. They’d all end up graduating alone, one at a time in a quiet auditorium with no cheering. And it was heartbreaking when our daughter began realizing, slowly, exactly how many senior events she’d miss out on altogether. One announcement came after another. The whole senior class of 2020 was robbed of experiences they’d waited their whole lives for. Yet in the face of such unforeseen disappointment, they all steeled themselves with a bravery I’ve yet to see in other age groups.
None of us at the time could fathom that by the time college move-in day arrived, we’d still be facing the same uncontrolled health crisis.
That one hot day earlier this week, my husband and I successfully got our daughter moved in to her college dorm — with hardly another person in sight. We spent every moment we could with her that day — walking around campus, getting food, taking pictures, just enjoying her company. At the end of the day, she walked us out to our car. I’d made it all day so far without even tearing up. It was good spirits all around.
But this was the moment. She and I caught eyes and we both welled up with tears at the same time — that part was inevitable. Yet it still caught me off-guard.
I bit my tongue to hide the fact that my lip was quivering with such force. I didn’t want to make things any harder on her than they already were. Even for as ready as she was to leave home, she was never ready for a socially distanced college experience.
When we hugged goodbye, I managed a weak but proud smile, albeit through tears… tears on the brink of waterfall.
As I opened my car door and slid into the passenger’s seat, that’s when it all came crashing down. I quickly pulled the door shut and not a moment later, my body heaved forward with raw, crude emotion. Sobs flowed. Enough to fill a river. All the tears I guess I’d selfishly denied myself along the way. Across first days of kindergarten and many other firsts that spanned the lifetimes of 3 kids. It had all finally caught up to me. And it was ugly.
I was then struck with an unfamiliar, hollow pain in my chest and abdomen, a pain I couldn’t accurately describe. I suppose I could say it was the pain of emptiness. Of having your heart absolutely gutted, of feeling your brain on heartbreak.
There in the shade of the car, my husband held me, issuing words of comfort and reassurance, but the pain wouldn’t leave. I was inconsolable, and I couldn’t understand why I was having such a visceral, uncontrollable physical reaction.
That’s when I remembered the kindergarten parking lot Moms, and I wanted to go back in time and simply hug them.
I wish I could say it got easier, but it really didn’t. Arriving back home that evening was equally hard. Every first was another crushing blow, a painful reminder of how “un-normal” life would seem throughout the coming week — this, on top of the already un-normal lives we’re all living amidst COVID-19.
Everything hurt. Pulling into the driveway and seeing her car not there. Realizing, for the first time in years, that I could no longer expect to see it there again —at least not with the regularity I’d grown accustomed to. As I walked towards the front steps, I spotted her “Congrats class of 2020” sign, still sticking up from the grass under the tree. Which I’d somehow managed to not take notice of all summer long; if I had, I’d have certainly taken it down by now. Or maybe I didn’t see it because I didn’t want to see it, because it would remind me how little time we had left.
Walking by her bedroom that night, I paused in the doorway. She’d left it cracked open for the cats and dog to come and go as they wished. Her room is their favorite room, after all. I stood there in the quiet and looked around, taking notice of how much she’d left behind. I guess it hadn’t registered earlier, even though I did help her unpack and saw firsthand everything she’d taken with her to college.
There sat her stack of yearbooks, edges neatly lined up to perfection. Her self-made photo collage, and the wall display she’d fashioned out of silver cake boards. It was still peppered with her favorite concert ticket stubs, polaroid shots, and other random remembrances I knew she’d keep forever.
Her favorite plush blankets and throw pillows were still resting on top of the bed, where she spent so much time studying, reading, or watching Netflix. Her box of “adventure money” from accumulated work tips still sat perched high on the window ledge. All her art supplies from years worth of perfecting her innate skills — messy paint bottles and brushes, random sketchbooks, drawing pencils worn-down to roots, all scattered… left wherever they happened to be used last.
Looking at all her stuff left behind, in this u-turn of a moment from all-day crying jags, my mind retreated to a temporary place of respite. Another realization had caught me off-guard, but this one was a balm for my soul: she’d be back.