August 23, 1998. The date will remain forever scorched in my memory as the day I became one of those mothers. The kind the rest of us whisper about when she leaves the room to get more tea. The kind who gives a bad name to motherhood.
I wasn't one when I left my own driveway, but by the time I reached Burlington, Vermont, I was a full-fledged wack-a-doo. A June Cleaver with bi-polar disorder and a twitch beneath my right eye.
That was the day I drove my baby boy, Matt, to college for the first time. I expected it to be no different from any other day. Empty-nest syndrome was not for me! I was too busy, too fulfilled, too emotionally complete to collapse in a heap because my children were getting on with their adult lives.
We filled the car with boxes of clothes, two guitars ("You expect me to survive with only two guitars?") 4,542 compact disks, bedding (regulation extra-long sheets, blue), and carton after carton of chemically preserved, unnaturally colored snack foods to keep his 6-foot-5-inch frame from wasting away.
The air was stifling, the sky, barely blue with heat-haze. We chatted casually as we drove up I-91. Stopping in Brattleboro for gas and lunch, we talked about books, religions, world peace, and how many more earrings he could get before I'd slip off the deep end. We'd always had a close relationship and could talk easily about anything ... not like other mothers and their sons.
Matt had been in contact with one of his two assigned roommates, Robby Roommate, a.k.a. "RR." He had seemed like a nice boy on the phone. RR and his parents arrived at the dorm at the same time we did. An RA (resident assistant) let us into the boys' room, smiling and chatting as she turned the key and opened the door.
And then it happened. I felt a shift in polarity. Something inside me snapped. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the same transformation wash over Robby Roommate's mother, some rabies-like virus that had been slowly creeping toward our brains for the past 18 years had finally reached gray matter at the exact same moment. We both became she-wolves, hackles raised, teeth bared, ready to kill each other for the sake of our sons, all over ... a bed.
In the room, there was one bunk bed and one single bed. Neither of us could imagine our son having to share a bunk bed with anyone -- ever. We instantly, instinctively knew this, knew that the other felt the exact same way, and we made our moves.
RR's mother maneuvered so quickly she almost knocked the RA to the floor. I was behind the two of them as the door opened, but my legs are longer and I knew I could beat her to the bed without seeming as though I had even tried. I sidestepped the tangled RA and RR's mother, lunging toward the single bed with a stack of Matt's sheets when, what had she done? She had lobbed her obnoxious son's backpack onto the single bed from eight feet away, permanently marking it as his territory.
THAT WITCH! WHO DID SHE THINK SHE WAS?
I did a graceful sidestep around the edge of the bed, as if I had merely tripped in that direction, and placed Matt's bedding on the bottom bunk. It was a full 15 seconds before I could compose myself enough to turn and face her, my facial contortions were under control, but a mysterious twitch had developed beneath my eye.
"It's a nice-size room, isn't it?" I smiled, and the twitching intensified.
She smiled back, "Yes, it is," she said, and I noticed her canine teeth seemed excessively long and pointed.
We smiled at each other a moment longer.
Okay, then. I would make my son's bed for him. If he couldn't have the good bed, at least he'd have a well-made bed, done for him by his Mommy. The Witch turned a pale shade of pink and began to make RR's bed as well.
I put Matt's folded towels neatly away. The Witch did the same for RR. She put her son's shower supplies away. So did I. We barely noticed our sons, who obliviously discussed classes and sports as we frantically tried to out-mother each other on the fourth floor of Harris Hall. The competition would have endured for years if Matt had not mentioned a hall meeting they needed to attend in 20 minutes.
"Good-bye!" We were saccharin sweet, we she-wolves were. "Nice to have met you!"
Matt walked me to the car, gave me a brief hug, said, "Bye, Mom," and turned and walked away.
He ... walked ... away. Just like that.
I willed him to turn and wave. Matt. Matt! Turn around and wave at your mother!
Thirty feet away...
I willed harder. I nursed you until you bit me so hard I almost lost my right nipple! I changed your diapers!
He had crossed the parking lot ...
MATT! TURN AROUND! I sat on the end of your bed every night and talked you through all your problems, when the other kids would pick on you, when you felt like you didn't fit in. Who took care of you? TURN AROUND, MATTHEW JOHN!
Up the grassy slope and onto the sidewalk he strode, his long, strong legs carrying him farther and farther from the one who loved him most, who would protect him from the Robby Roommates and their villainous, vampirous mothers.
BABY BOY! TURN AROUND! NOW!
He opened the door to Harris Hall.
Who will take care you?!
And the dormitory door swung closed behind him.
I collapsed against the car, sobbing. My son had gotten on with his adult life, and mine would never be the same.
Dr. Matt, the organic chemist, currently lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife, Dr. Alex, the geneticist. He does research for NYU and travels the world, and there have been a hundred goodbyes since, but not a one ripped my heart out quite the way that one did. I tell myself I raised my children to be independent so they could follow their dreams; they have, and I am insanely proud of them.
But once in a while, when Skype isn't quite enough, well . . . I squelch the second-guessing, smile and console myself that I sent some really great kids out into the world.
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