Dropping Jeff off at college was traumatic--not for him but for us!
| Two Flew Over the Empty Nest
By Donna Lowich
"Don't forget, " I whispered into Jeff's ear. "Every time you think of me, I'll be thinking of you, because I'll be thinking of you all the time." It was August 1999, not quite a week since his eighteenth birthday, and now it was time for Jeff's freshman orientation.
I had been dreading the moment, and here it was for real! It was even worse than I had imagined. I had tried to prepare myself for this day, for this moment but I knew deep down that it was for naught. In 1985, I had undergone two spinal cord surgeries that left me paralyzed from the shoulders down. I spent six weeks at the hospital followed by six months at the rehab center. Jeff, at age four, took it upon himself to become my cheerleader who believed in me even when I couldn't. He was the one who stood by my side saying, "You can do it, Mommy. You can do it if you believe in yourself." These are the memories that stay close, all these years later.
As we left the dorm, Walter and I were in tears. I knew I was in trouble because all the tissues I had stuffed in my pocket were not nearly enough to handle the both of us all the way home. I hadn't expected Walter to react like this, at least not so early in our farewell to our only child. Walter and I went downstairs and out to the car in silence. My sister, Mary Lou, had come out to help us move Jeff into his room. She, too, was quiet and teary eyed as we left Jeff to participate in the activities the college had planned for him and his new classmates.
As we drove out of town, and got on the highway, we started reminiscing about our favorite "Jeffrey stories", funny things he had said and done at different ages growing up. Instead of making us laugh, as they usually did when we retold these snippets from our past, it just made the reality of saying goodbye that much more difficult. Before we knew it, I was in a full-force crying jag, and Walter was almost as bad.
Within the hour, as we were driving through the Pocono Mountains, we made a stop at a convenience store in a small town before we reached the interstate highway. We had to stop -- my tissue supply was gone. Mary Lou pulled over, not knowing the reason for the stop. She, too, was teary eyed and waited while we replenished our stock of tissues. Once back inside the car, Walter confessed, "I thought I was going to handle it a lot better than this."
I looked over at him and made a similar confession: "I thought you were, too. In fact, I was counting on it. I was hoping you were going to help me through this!"
We laughed a little, but the somber mood returned as we neared our home. We opened the door, and stood in the middle of the room, and were struck by the silence in the house. Jeff's cat came downstairs and meowed plaintively. Clearly, Lucky was as melancholy as we were.
The days that followed seemed to blur together. I went to work, came home, and tried to keep busy. But, no matter what I tried to do, I ended up the same way: dissolving in tears. Whether I tried to read a book, work on a cross-stitch project or just watch a movie, every story, every plotline somehow linked to my newfound gloominess.
With Jeff out of the house, the dynamics of conversations between Walter and me also changed. We tried to talk about other subjects, but the conversation eventually returned to, "I wonder how Jeff's doing?"
That was the start of conversation at dinner one Friday night, several weeks later. Walter by this time was vastly better in his outlook than on that infamous ride home two weeks earlier. Now, he gradually pulled me into other topics: what was going on at work, with friends, in the world. I was actually starting to put things into perspective, and changing my outlook, too.
That is, until after dinner when I turned on television, and began to watch a movie. Feelings of sadness were creeping up on me, and I turned to reach for another tissue, when I heard, "Hi, Mom!"
"Great, now I'm imagining his voice," I chided myself.
"Mom, are you OK?"
I heard it again.
I looked up towards the darkened kitchen. There, looming in the doorway was Jeff's tall, familiar form! I could hardly believe what my weepy eyes were seeing!
"Jeff!" I yelled. "It's so great to see you!" Then, "Are you OK? Is everything at school OK?"
"School's great," Jeff said, smiling. "I just came home to surprise you."
I'm not sure what the weather outside was during those two days; it really didn't matter, anyway. All I knew was that the sun, my son, the center of my universe, was shining brightly at home that weekend.