From Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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He had wanted to tell her about college, the lush greens against the deep red brick, how much fun it was going to be. How for the first time in his life he’d stood up straight, how from that angle the world had looked bigger, wider brighter. P 114

An open letter to any parent who has ever dropped their only child off at college,

How did you do it? What tips do you have to share? Do you ever get over the feeling of missing a limb, or do you learn to ignore the sensation? How did you balance the desire to let them go with the intense need of holding them close. What happens when you reach that pinnacle and the countdown clock hits zero? Please tell me, I need to know.

I don’t really know why I am asking. I have been getting advice thrown at me, given freely from anyone now living at home without their children. It is unsolicited, though I wouldn’t say unwelcome. I am obstinate and stubborn; I don’t want to do what they are telling me. And I really don’t trust that in 6 weeks time I will feel so free— as if by magic. Their words, not mine. In all honesty, I don’t want to be on that side of the field, cavorting with the footloose and fancy free couples, unencumbered by the daily demands of their children. I feel as if I were in the middle of a meadow. I hear “Red Rover Red Rover, send B right over.” Sure they look like they are having a good time, but no thank you. I’d much rather stay right where I am with the people who wake each morning running lists through their heads of what child needs to be where and when, a master of logistics even at an early hour. The parents who tuck their children in at night and feel like it was a good day if everyone made it to bed in one piece. Memories of the day running through their heads as they close their eyes.

Yet that is the thing about having an only child, there have only ever been three people to consider each day. Parent, parent, child. And while this may not be your exact situation (deaths, divorce, remarriage among others) the basic premise still holds true—that for some reason you and your partner decided to have only one child. And after 18 years that child moved on to school, or a job, and is making a home elsewhere.

Empty does not begin to describe how it feels. His room exudes a sense of hollowness. Even though it is tiny, it strikes me now as cavernous without his things. The house itself is sagging a bit without his cheery patter up and down the steps or his accompanying song or whistle. The dogs seem a bit bereft and the cat is boyless. None of them are sure what to make of the quiet.

And I get that I will not always be sad. I get that the woman who told me in 6 weeks I will feel differently. Someday soon the world will right itself and we we will readjust to this new life. But I also feel quite strongly that the parents of the twins I learned about today must be feeling a sucker punch to the gut. It was their aunt who told me about them and how they were each heading to a college in DC. She said that if she was feeling sad about her situation, she could only imagine how I must feel.

It is strange this feeling, almost like it was 18 years ago when I had T. Now, as was true then, the days are hot and humid and I can’t seem to focus; beyond that I know that everything is about to change. That my whole world is going to turn upside down in ways I can’t imagine. He is gone, and even if he comes back here to live, he will not be the same boy who left. I don’t know anything about his daily life and that feels strange. When your children are little you take them where they need to go and for a time school is their universe. As they get older who or what they rotate around changes, but still you know their friends or you give them rides. There is time to sit in the car and have silly, inconsequential conversations that didn’t strike you as important at the time but now you would trade your left arm for…

Truly that is what I will miss: his presence, his banter, his jokes, his kind manner and way of looking at an issue; his passions and his ideals. I know college is an adventure-filled time and he will be introduced to new, exciting ideas and perspectives. When we dropped him off on Friday I was in awe of the diversity of the kids we met. I’m excited for him to meet new people and learn to navigate the campus, his classes and discover the ins-and-outs of Boston. But it feels weird not to have him here. And without him to care for (as any parent would care for their child) putting myself first seems selfish and somehow at odds with the way I live my life. When T was a teeny, tiny baby I went to change his diaper and scraped my leg on the bedpost. I looked down and saw that my leg was bleeding, but I knew by his wailing that I needed to attend to him first. I realized then that as a parent that’s how my life would be.

But I don’t think anyone really prepares you for the day when that will all come to an end. How is it possible that Someday is here? For us, three has always been a magic number. Over the years I have sung that Schoolhouse Rock refrain in my head. “A man and a woman had a little baby. Yes they did.” Eighteen years ago, as if by magic, we learned that 2 + 1 does equal 3. But now the sad truth of it is that 3-1 = 2, and somehow this lesson in subtraction is an unexpected truth. It’s like we had a three-legged stool and now we have to balance on two legs. I don’t know that that is possible. But I tell myself that T wants to ride a unicycle on campus, and that’s only one wheel instead of two, and that’s not an impossible feat. Maybe this just takes some learning, a lesson in rebalancing.

Oh parents, why didn’t you tell me it would be this challenging. I guess that’s one of the drawbacks of having only one child, there’s no chance to get used to this new lifestyle gradually. No children at home to distract you from the oldest leaving first. I don’t want to think about an empty nest, that term just sends shivers down my spine. It sounds like a term old people use and I don’t want to be old. I guess maybe I thought I could live in this motherhood role indefinitely, a Peter Pan-like state where I didn’t ever really have to grow up from this point. I could be stuck in this role for awhile.

I know that having him gone means more time for writing and reading and picturetaking. More time to go out to dinner with friends or to the movies with M or line the Netflix queue up to my liking without opposition. It all sounds wonderful, like a fairytale land I’ve read about in books or seen on the big screen.

Still, I’d give it all up for just a little more time with my boy. More time in the car with the windows rolled down and the music cranked high, our voices filling the air around us.

There is still a little summer left to enjoy, and opportunities to be outside and bike and hike and lay in a field and watch the clouds move. I have time for some of those things now. I hope to embrace the chances and the changes that are coming– any my boy when he comes home to visit.

2 thoughts on “From Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

  1. Oh, Beth… I wish I could make this time easier for you. I won’t say it will get easier, because I know I will feel exactly the same way in 2 years. All we can do is keep loving these children, and learn to look for new ways to be their parents, and rejoice in their homecomings, and lean on each other when they leave, and find a new way. Remember when you first learned you were to be a parent and how that filled you with fear? And then look what happened? You raised a wonderful boy. Your work on that front is not done. xo

  2. Beth,

    Good work.. Just keep on writing and the days will pass and you will see things differently. T will still be in college and you will miss him, but slowly your perspective will have changed.

    Just keep on writing girl.
    Love,
    P

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