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On Leaving Home, a Time to Grow Up for Our Child or Us?

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Sunday, 11th September ,2016

I never left home for college.  My family came to the U. S. only three years before I went to college.  With three older siblings in college at the time, all we could afford was the closest university to our home (we lived in Columbus, Ohio) back then, which was Ohio State University.  All my siblings went to O.S.U. and as many as four out of six of us were in O.S.U. at the same time.  We came home each evening in the same car that we shared, helped with household chores before dinner and homework.  Some of us including me held part time jobs while in college to help our household’s income.  We lived the typical life of poor immigrants.  

Sometime I still wonder if my life would have been any different had I been away from home for college.  I heard how you have a chance to be independent when you leave home for college.  You have the opportunity to “find yourself,” to fend for yourself, to interact with others, to express yourself more fully.  All my siblings turned out OK like me, so I am not so sure if leaving home is indeed a necessity to grow up.

We dropped our son off at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania two weeks ago.  He started the motions of leaving home a few weeks before, quite reluctantly. The night before he left, he started packing using a list from his college.  How does one gather all his belongings and memories from eighteen years in a few suitcases?  As I walked behind him in “Bed, Bath and Beyond,” I realized he was creating a whole new life without me and my husband, this little person we had been nurturing and guiding all these years.

Will he eat more vegetables, sleep at least eight hours a day, floss his teeth and wear his retainers and hearing aids, say thanks to anybody who helps him? 

Will he fold his clothes before putting them away, as we have urged him to do over his teenage years, and not dump dirty clothes on the floor while creating a Kilimanjaro of clean clothes on his bed? After all, he sleeps on a single bed now, in a small room, with a roommate.  

Will he look at the moon at night and think of shadows of the tall Poplar trees in our yard, outside his bedroom window? Will he think of his two neighbor friends every time he sees young boys playing basketball? Are boys sentimental when they leave home like girls?

At his drop-off day, after a few hours together going to different introductory sessions with the school administrators, we finally said goodbye to Sandy.  We managed to take him to a hair salon nearby, between the “moving in” introductory sessions, for a new haircut as his hair was getting too long.  He walked away after our embrace, pulled up his new T-shirt with his college logo to wipe his eyes.  Girls probably would have used their sleeves to wipe their wet eyes.  Was he sad leaving us, or was he sad realizing he has grown up and now is in the world fending for himself?  Maybe he did not think we were so annoying after all; maybe he loves us as my friends have always reassured us over his teenage years. 

The first week after Sandy left, it was quite difficult for me, as many mothers who are friends and patients had warned me.  I looked for him, as if he was somewhere around the corner of our house, as if he was going to come to the dining table in the evening for the meals I elaborately prepared for him.  I opened our refrigerator several days after he left and froze in a Proust moment, as I was staring at a half eaten bowl of rice and fish.  When will he be back to finish the other half? A nostalgic part of me couldn’t stop wondering as I became tearful.  What am I going to do with his favorite ravioli and a bag of shrimp tempura in the freezer?  Will he miss all the bottles of different hot sauces he so treasured? Is college food too bland for him?  Suddenly, all the images came back of him being a baby, a toddler, a very ill toddler fighting and recovering bravely from his Stage 4 cancer, a student, a basketball, tennis and piano player, a rebellious teenager who immersed himself in social media like the rest of the modern teenagers.  He got his driver’s license just a few days before college started.  Time does not go backward, time is a river flowing in one direction.

My husband fared no better than me either.  One morning, I was missing Sandy and walked into his bedroom, to find my husband in a fetal position on Sandy’s bed with his back to the door.  I tiptoed out of the room.  His home office now is full of Sandy’s photos including all the ID cards from middle school through high school.  I was surprised that men can be sentimental too. 

Who am I now, a mother in retirement? I texted and emailed Sandy daily, just to get one syllable back: “good,” now and then.  Was he homesick?  I would have been, as it has always been my personality to be nostalgic about the past.  A sense of “belonging” has always been important to me. Even when I was a little girl, wherever I went to, I would carefully fold the candy wrappers to bring them home and put them in the trashcan at home, where they “belonged,” as if the wrappers would get lonely not being where they were supposed to be.  I don’t understand why Sandy does not reply to every text I send him.  Did he already forget where he came from? 

My texts were in paragraphs, like a novel describing the life he has left behind while making a new one in a new town.  I texted him video clips of our next door neighbor’s dog Angel who was barking and hollering at me in our backyard.  I texted him a video clip of the storm on the Chesapeake bay with the rustling sounds of the wind in the background.  Do not write or contact your child too often to allow an easier transition for him, everyone was telling me, including his academic dean.  Maybe I was writing to myself, as he didn’t seem to reply much, as people had warned me.  Maybe I wanted to confirm how my world has changed, now that I am a “mother in retirement.”  My job of pruning this son, from a bonsai to a full grown tree, seems finished.  I wonder if he will proliferate like ivy on the side of our house, climbing away from its roots in many directions.  

Things change.  Roles Change.  No day is identical.  I knew all that, as many people had prepared me for this day to come.  The day still came abruptly, or so it seemed, and I was caught off guard by an intense sense of nostalgia, one beyond Proust’s moments.  Marcel Proust tasted a “Petite Madeleine” cookie and was flooded with childhood memories.  A scent of Chrysanthemum brought full memory of his lost love.  As for me, the quietness of the house brought a sense of motherhood revisit.  Sandy has grown up; where has all that time gone? 

One of my brothers brought Sandy home this weekend to visit with his two cousins.  Sandy looked happy and relaxed.  He chose to stay in Fairfax with the cousins rather than stay with us.  He bragged about how he was able to drink a huge glass of milk in such a short time in a school contest.  He obviously has made many friends, including two from China.  

My husband, David, informed me that Sandy is now known as “Sam” or “Samuel.”  He always claimed that he was bothered by his nickname.  He told us when he was ten or eleven years old that he did some “research” and found that only 12% of people who used the nickname Sandy are men.  He asked David to name some famous men whose  nickname was Sandy, to which David, on the spot, could name only two, Sandy Berger, a politician (in Clinton’s Cabinet), and the baseball player Sandy Koufax.

“See, Dad, I told you, there are very few men with my name!” Sandy concluded triumphantly.

David now texts me about this new “Sam” or “Samuel.”  I text back “Who’s Samuel?”  I still refuse to march away from our past.  Sigh, why would he want to give up his nickname in just a few weeks after leaving home? 

My brother reported how on Friday night, Sandy stayed up using his computer until 3 am.  What? In just two weeks and he already has changed for the worse, staying until 3 am to chat online with his friends?  He must have been with “the wrong” crowd of college friends who are destined to have Alzheimer’s later in life because of the lack of sleep, I told myself.  Why would they intentionally alter their circadian system with such a foolish habit?  I was enraged. 

We are taking “Samuel” back to his college this afternoon.  Today is September 11, fifteen years after that horrible day when so many lives were lost in the terrorist attack.  Sandy was only four years old and in the middle of his intensive cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NewYork City.  He survived his cancer like a miracle, as he fought it with such endurance.  With all my sadness over his leaving home for college, all my worries about him getting “bad” habits from “the wrong crowd” of friends, I am aware how grateful I should be that he is now a college student. I once did not believe he would live to see this day.   Besides, my friends this morning reassured me it is very normal for college students to be up so late into the night to socialize with friends.  He’s adjusting well to his college life, they said. Be glad he has friends and is not so homesick.  Be glad he doesn’t have or take so much time to text me back, as he has become immersed into his new life as adult.

Maybe Sandy is adjusting better than I am to his adulthood.  Maybe I should be the one to grow up and explore the world beyond home and “my roots.”  I should learn to accept changes, knowing how life evolves and one should enter a new phase with courage, not with regret or nostalgia about the past, but with the mindfulness on the present moments.  Maybe it will help me understand my “Samuel” better.









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