On his show Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David often notices small, annoying things another person is doing and then can’t concentrate on anything else.
The same thing happened to me last week. I was waiting in line outside my local library to pick up an at-home Covid test kit and noticed the woman behind me kept inching closer to me. Everyone else was about six feet apart and many people were wearing masks. This woman was not wearing a mask or keeping any distance, and it was annoying me in a Larry David kind of way.
Each time I felt her behind me, I would turn around and glare and then move a little further away. She was gabbing on the phone (changing travel plans), and every time I moved away from her, she would step closer. I was wondering whether she was oblivious to my angry glances or if she just didn’t mind being disliked. Both, maybe?
My mental gymnastics on this issue were interrupted by a call from my son, who informed me that he was getting a tattoo in Washington, D.C. that afternoon.
We were three days away from traveling to the University of Michigan so he could begin his first semester, and I was desperately trying to avoid getting sick just before we left.
“Uh, that’s not a good idea,” I told him.
“Because you are going to be exposed to additional people.”
“Well, I have an appointment and I’m going. I want to do this before I go to Michigan …”
As he was emphasizing the importance of keeping his tattoo appointment, I pressed the little red button on the bottom of my phone screen.
End of conversation.
“Wow,” I thought to myself, “I guess I’m a little more stressed than I realized.”
When I got home, he let me know he didn’t appreciate being hung up on and asked if I was going to apologize.
My response: “What???”
Then I yelled myself hoarse. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of how I had canceled all kinds of plans and stayed in the #$%^ing house for ten days to make sure I was able to go to Michigan with him and he didn’t seem to give a #$%^ about avoiding Covid. At the end of my speech, I slammed the door to my office and sat down at my desk.
“Nice apology!” he yelled.
After briefly considering homicide, I took some deep breaths and decided to move on.
The lease on the apartment where my son lived for the last year ended a few days before Christmas, and he had moved home on the 22nd. His classes at Michigan would start the first week of January, so our plan was for him to drive with his dad and his things to Ann Arbor. I would be flying to Detroit that same day and meeting them there.
The two-part move during the holidays and the surge in the pandemic made for a tense ten days. We’ve had a lot of conflict over the last few years; that pattern was compounded by the strain of living together again – even briefly – and the nervous anticipation of the upcoming move.
Part of my stress was about fear that something might go wrong for him in this next grand adventure. When I saw this ceramic sign a few weeks before Christmas, it dawned on me that I was more worried than he was. I decided to buy it for him, but in truth it was really more of a reminder for myself that my glass-half-empty approach was not serving either of us.
Mercifully, we were all able to avoid getting sick, and last Sunday we traveled safely to Ann Arbor.
Even in freezing weather in early January, the campus was striking. Ann Arbor is a cool town, with lots of little shops and restaurants and things to do. As we walked around, I was pleased for him that he will have any number of places to explore over the next two-and-a-half years.
I was also so proud of him. If he had listened to me, he would’ve taken a gap year after high school to work and mature and then started college last fall. When I made that suggestion partway through his senior year, he asked, “What’s a gap year?” and then flatly rejected the idea.
Instead, he enrolled himself in the local community college, worked harder than he had ever worked before, and earned excellent grades. He researched four-year schools and decided where he wanted to apply, then worked with a friend of mine who does college planning to fine tune his applications.
After getting into Michigan, he lined up off-campus housing for himself – an independent unit in a large house with 11 other guys, where he will have his own kitchen, bathroom, and living area. As his dad and I helped him settle into the house, it became clear that it was a great place.
We had not spent this much time together since we were a family of three 17 years ago. As my ex-husband worked to fix a frozen pipe and I arranged things in the kitchen, it felt like the best parts of what we had been as a couple were on display. My ex-husband and I both wanted to be there to send our son off. It wasn’t discussed, but I sensed that all three of us were comforted by the time we had together as we quietly worked to set up the apartment.
After I got back to the hotel that night, I happened to hear Cat Stevens’ On the Road to Find Out, a song about a young man leaving his family to launch his life. I immediately felt a lump of emotion in my throat as the significance of the moment started to hit me.
The next morning my son and I spent a little time together before my flight home. As I was saying goodbye, I started to tear up. Not wanting to do that in front of him, I told him I loved him, gave him a hug, and left quickly.
I cried the whole way to the airport. I was grateful that I was alone in the rental car so I didn’t have to feel self-conscious or explain the groundswell of emotions to anyone. I wasn’t even sure I understood how I felt.
After all, my son moved out a year ago. He’s almost 20. He is at a great school in a vibrant town, and his housing situation seems perfect for this first semester. This is the right step for him. Plus, embarrassingly irritable middle-aged women and 19-year-old young men with ants in their pants do not make good roommates, so I was not questioning the wisdom of his leaving home.
But there is something primal about leaving your child in another part of the country and heading home on your own that drives home the point that a life stage is ending.
Parenthood is a humbling experience. We care about these little people, expending more time and energy and angst and hope and love than we knew we were capable of, and then eventually we have to stand back and let them make their own way in the world.
Linda Pastan’s beautiful poem captures the experience of these watershed moments when we watch our children wave goodbye.
To a Daughter Leaving Home When I taught you at eight to ride a bicycle, loping along beside you as you wobbled away on two round wheels, my own mouth rounding in surprise when you pulled ahead down the curved path of the park, I kept waiting for the thud of your crash as I sprinted to catch up, while you grew smaller, more breakable with distance, pumping, pumping for your life, screaming with laughter, the hair flapping behind you like a handkerchief waving goodbye.