My heart refused to do the math: four minus one is three. For months I had tried to brace myself for the moment at the end of the summer when I would have to accept this simple computation, but it turns out there are some things in life for which you cannot prepare. On August 27th our family of four effectively became a family of three when we delivered my son to the college he will call home for the next four years.
How did this day arrive so quickly? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we dropped off my little boy at the pre-school and waved at him through the window as he sobbed in his teacher’s arms? Could it really be time to entrust him to this institution of higher learning for the next four years? Had we imparted the last bit of wisdom that we parents had to offer?
Ready or not, we drove the two hours north, unpacked our truck and stowed his belongings in his dormitory. We met his two roommates and their parents, rented his books, had lunch in his cafeteria, and then attended a welcoming mass for the incoming freshmen and their families. The homily was given by the President of the school who foretold that just as St. Augustine encountered mighty challenges in his search for faith and meaning in his life, so too would our sons and daughters necessarily struggle in the next four years on their quest to shape their future. He suggested that like St. Augustine, our children would don and discard ideas like trendy clothes, and that like St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, who watched her son flounder, but never stopped praying for him to find his path, we parents must let go while praying that he or she will find his way. We found some solace in St. Augustine’s discovery that the heart is restless until it rests in the Lord.
And so we left the gym and walked our son out onto the quad where he was supposed to find his break-out group for orientation amidst the hundreds of freshmen milling about the sun-drenched lawn. This was the end of the line, the last goodbye. My son hugged me more tightly than he has in a long time, as he did his mother and sister. Lisa and Michaela dabbed at their eyes, squinting in the sunlight. I watched him slip away into the sea of wandering freshmen, trying to find their place in their new world. Suddenly Lisa realized we had not gotten one last picture together and was frantic to get one. I quietly told her he was gone, took her hand and Michaela’s and walked back to his dorm where we assembled the fan we’d bought in the bookstore, and each of us wrote a note for him to find in his room.
Of course we got stuck in rush hour traffic, just at the moment we needed to put some space between us and his college, the delay only exacerbating the agony we each felt in our own way. We finally limped onto I 95 to head back to Connecticut. Somewhere just past Warwick my eyes fogged up as I allowed myself to replay snippets of our life together: spiking our hair after a bathroom break at a restaurant; teaching him to ride his bicycle in our front yard, watching him fall again and again on the soft lawn; riding cross-country with him when he turned 16; watching him throw fastballs from the mound; skiing the steeps in Vermont; free diving behind Block Island.
We had planned to stop in Mystic for dinner on the way home, but none of us had much of an appetite. Instead, I called my mother, who reproved me for being so glum on such a “glorious” day. She reminded me of a day many years ago when one of her sons drove himself and the family dog to college, honking his horn all the way out of the neighborhood, a cigar clenched confidently between his teeth, as he stormed headlong into his own destiny. Yes, I remembered the day well, and it made me smile.
When I opened my eyes after hugging him tightly one final time, I watched as he walked for a few steps until quickly disappearing into the school of nervous minnows, flopping awkwardly all around. It wasn’t until that instant that I realized that this was really goodbye. Similarly to the way you watch the world below you slowly shrink into a tiny speck when taking off on an airplane, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this. My brother was entering his new home and beginning his new life. He was taking his first steps into adulthood. Our lives would never be the same.
Rewind a few hours: Move-In Day. My family woke up early and got ready for the big day. On the ride to Providence, my mom was driving and remained fairly quiet: my dad was full of nervous chatter and cheesy jokes. (Really Dad?) At first, I didn’t know what was going on with him, until I realized that he was saying anything he could, to keep from thinking about where we were going.
When we arrived at Providence, there were friendly guards who led us (in our car) through several checkpoints to my brother’s assigned dorm. Eventually, we pulled into a parking lot outside of a four-story brick building. Instantly, some cheery students in yellow shirts buzzed over to welcome us and help to unload. Caelan’s room number was written on a piece of paper and taped to his flat screen television, the biggest item that he had brought. Typical. When we walked into the building, it was as if we were entering another universe. Many words came to mind, some of which were: intimidating, bland, packed, tense. However, one word didn’t appear in my thoughts. Home. Granted when peeking into the open doors of the rooms full of excited new adults and nervous parents, I saw multiple miniature fridges, bean bags, fuzzy blankets, even a multi-colored furry rug (courtesy of Caelan), but there was no character. There was no stain on the floor from when T-Bone was a puppy. There was no missing shingle from the time when a lacrosse ball was thrown too hard in front of the garage. No initials were carved in the headboard of the bed with a pocket-knife from fifth grade. And no matter how many faux fur rugs there were, there were no dogs to cover them with the real deal. I could not picture my brother in his bed, his head on his pillow, feeling comfortable and cozy, and falling asleep in this place.
Later that day, there was an optional mass for all of the incoming students. After my family found our seats, I began to watch the other families shuffle in. With every new face I saw, I wondered which ones would eventually be comforting to Caelan. I wondered which face would replace mine for this chapter of his life. By the end of the night, when we all was said and done and I was back at home, the only face I was thinking about, was his. I went up to my room and sat on my bed with an old Christmas picture of Caelan and me from 2002 and I cried, hard, for a long time. Not necessarily because I was sad, but more because I am selfish. I didn’t want to share my brother with the rest of the world. I liked watching over him and knowing the people he spent time with. I cried because I realized that I no longer had to hide my after school-snacks in fear of him scarfing them down. I realized that if I wanted to hear the piano, I would have to learn a few songs. It also occurred to me that in the evenings now, when I am brushing my teeth and washing my face in the bathroom, there will be no one sitting in the bathtub, with the curtains closed, to talk to. I cried because there will be no more rowdy boys to push me around and annoy my friends when they come over. I would no longer see Rucks (Luke), Potesy (Joey), Shartsy (Nick Schnartz) or even Andy, my brother from another mother. I cried because I realized, that if life goes according to plan, my family will never again live under the same roof.
Recently, I saw a home video that was made on the day I was born. I was in my mom’s arms in the hospital bed when Caelan, my almost three year old brother, saw me for the first time. Since that moment, I have had a best friend. We’ve screamed at each other and hit each other, we’ve been unimaginably angry at each other. But in these 15 years, we have created a bond that will never be broken. Caelan has been my role model, my brother, and the best friend a girl could ever ask for, for 15 years. Whether he is downstairs playing piano until I fall asleep, or in his dorm at Providence, he will be there for me. He will protect and help to guide me, from a distance. It is scary saying goodbye, but this is his chance to fly. We have to step out of the way and let him spread his wings. Good luck brother. We love you.