A lot of my younger friends are posting pictures this week of their pride-and-joys beginning their college years. My Facebook and Instagram feeds show these happy young men and women sporting the colors and logos of their chosen colleges and universities. Many are sitting on their dorm room beds while mom snaps that last photo.
All are smiling.
I’m wondering what’s going on behind the camera.
I did not take well to the empty nest. I didn’t like it when I left Trey, my older son, at Ferrum College after he halted his dream of attending the University of Tennessee in order to play college soccer. That resolve only lasted his freshman year, and he finished his degree at UT.
I did not like it when three years later, I left Brett at Reese Hall at UT to start his college years. The main difference between the two events was that I had a five hour car-ride home from Ferrum to cry my eyes out. With Brett, I only had 20 minutes and had to shut myself in my room to finish my tears at home.
I remember so very well the incredible mix of emotions that accompanied those two days. I was so filled with pride, so happy that they were calm and sure of themselves and that they seemed so ready for this next step.
At the same time, I was filled with remorse for all those things we didn’t get done, things I wanted to tell them, conversations I wanted to have with them. Where had the time gone? How in the world had they grown up so quickly?
Boys are impatient. Long talks with mom are seldom on the list of things-to-do. Still, as smart as they were, I knew there were things they needed to know, and I resolved to tell them.
Most didn’t get told. The ones that did probably didn’t get heard. And yet, they survived and thrived and are now parents with their own lists of resolves for their boys.
Looking back now and after re-reading the columns I wrote about dropping them off at college, I can be honest enough to admit that the driving force in my sadness on those days was a sense of reality and loss.
I left home for UT the summer after I graduated from high school. I loved my hometown. I cherished my mother, my brother, my aunts, uncles and cousins who all lived minutes from my front door. I had so many friends who would be home most weekends to socialize and carry on much as we always had.
I never intended to stay away.
I never spent more than 4 consecutive weeks in my childhood home again.
That reality bore down hard on me when my boys left for college. I found little solace in the fact that, after year one with Trey, they were both only 20 minutes from me. I knew life would never be the same.
And I knew I would miss them so much. I did.
But here’s the good news: They never leave your heart, and you never leave theirs.
As you drive or fly away from the drop-off, remember what Christopher Robin said to Winnie the Pooh: “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.