On Thursday, my son finished up his junior year of high school, and today his dad, little sister and I drove him 75 miles to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he’ll spend the next 6 weeks immersed in Art. He’ll spend much of that time muddying his clothes in the ceramics studio, with his hands elbow-deep in clay that turns magical in his two hands — hands that have turned sinewy and strong from all his time at the potter’s wheel.
He hugged me and patted my back with those hands when we left to drive back home. He’s gone to summer camps before. But this was the first time that he didn’t push me toward the exit with impatience, counting the seconds before I would stop embarrassing him, or smothering him, or fretting too much, or whatever it is that I do that usually drives him absolutely crazy. “Thanks, Mom,” he said instead.
We were standing in his dorm room, the place that will be his home for the next six weeks. I don’t think he was talking about the twin-sized bed I had just made up for him, with the freshly purchased extra-long sheets and the fleece blanket from his bed at home. He seemed to be talking about something else entirely, and it was that other thing that caused a sudden lump to rise in my throat.
I had noticed it earlier: He walked with ease with the three of us around the campus, getting the lay of the land, taking it all in like he always does — like he always has since his newborn eyes focused so intently that as a new and nervous mother I was convinced it was the sign of a vision problem.
As we walked around the campus, and checked him in, and picked up his ID card, and visited the health office, and the housing office, and all that, he didn’t say much, really. But it was more what wasn’t there that I noticed: The way he didn’t walk two steps ahead of us or loiter behind us. The way he didn’t look away — seemingly mortified at being caught red-handed with the ridiculous people who spawned him — when we passed another student on the brick sidewalks near the school. The way that he didn’t roll his eyes when I clarified with the kitchen attendant some specifics of his meal plan, or got the exact coordinates of the laundry facility. And when I relayed it back, he actually listened, and he didn’t cut me off with an impatient, “O-kay! I know!”
In other words, he didn’t act one bit like he’d rather be anywhere else except where he was at that very moment, interacting with anyone else except me. If you have a teenager, or you’ve ever been one, you can recognize that behavior.
His “thank you” in the dorm room was for help with all of that, I think. But also for putting him there at all. By that I mean writing the check, of course. But more than that: for racing in the pouring rain to the post office to make the application deadline. For slogging through the confusing reams of paperwork the college sent. For the marathon seven loads of laundry just the day before. The desperate run for deodorant. The last-ditch stop on the way because I was worried he wouldn’t have enough cash for supplies. For the opportunity he seemed suddenly awed to realize he had been given.
I could fool myself into thinking that his thank you meant more than that: that he was grateful for all the stuff that fell into place in the 17 years leading up to today, too: All of the mostly thankless and unacknowledged stuff that I do, and any parent does, just to keep our kids healthy and happy and safely out of the path of a moving bus, those that are actual as well as metaphorical. But he probably wasn’t thinking of that, of course. Love rolls down hill. It’ll be years and years (I hope) before he has his own family and he’ll come close to understanding any of it.
All afternoon, in the back of my mind, while we zipped around the campus on foot on a hot, muggy day, I tried to think of a word that might describe how completely happy he was to be there, how excited, how amazed at the possibilities, how completely turned on he felt.
And then I tried to think of how it felt, as a parent, to see him so happy and alive. Most parents might describe it as pride, I guess. But pride doesn’t come close, because it’s not about me. It’s about him. What’s a word that describes how you feel when one of the people you love most in the world, one of the very few people you would gladly suffer deeply for, would do just about anything for just because they asked — no questions asked, no strings attached, no payment required — without resentment, or anything even close to anger or complaint, and in fact would see it as a kind of duty and honor? What’s the word for a kind of love that fills you up to the point that it overflows the brim?
Whatever you call it, that’s what rose in my throat today, and rendered me unable to tell him, right then, that I was happy for him. That I loved him. I hoped he’d have the time of his life, and goodbye.