I thought I would cry when we said goodbye to Daughter in her dorm room, but I didn’t.
I was too exhausted.
Move-in day came after a week of visiting various family members back east. I love them all, but three different houses in nine days — two beach communities and one city — is a lot. Then there was the expedition to Ikea in New Jersey followed by two separate trips to a three-story Bed Bath & Beyond on the Upper East Side that made our little Oakland BB&B look like a malnourished Dickensian orphan. It was the biggest BB&B I’d ever seen.
(Until we ended up at yet another BBB downtown that was even bigger, but I’ll get to that later.)
I’d never pictured taking a child to college in a taxi, but in true New York spirit, that’s what we did. Sunday was move-in day not just for Daughter but for approximately 5,000 other NYU freshman. Considering the numbers, the university did an impressive job of organizing things and keeping order, with move-in times allotted by floor number and vast hordes of cheerful house elves – oops, I mean student volunteers — directing people where to go. But it still took three trips by elevator to get all Daughter’s stuff up to her 8th floor room, with a twenty-minute queue for each elevator trip, preceded by a queue to get her room keys, and followed by another queue in a building about eight blocks away to get her student ID.
I had worried that Daughter was bringing too many clothes and would look like a spoiled princess to her roommates. But it quickly became apparent that her Everest of stuff was just an average mountain, or maybe even a foothill: We weren’t toting any microwaves, coffee makers, cross country ski poles, big screen TVs or wheeled duffels the size of Great Plains bison.
But there was time to remedy our failings. NYU was running continuous shuttle buses from its various dorms to the nearest Bed Bath & Beyond (yes, the downtown mother ship). And these weren’t little vanlike shuttles – they were inter-city-size Greyhound style buses, the seats filled with freshmen families and the luggage compartments jammed with their BBB shopping bags.
The buses turned out to be so crowded that we couldn’t get on, so we hopped another cab to get last-minute necessities like a shoe rack and a bin for under-bed storage. The BB&B was festooned with Welcome NYU Students banners, purple-and-white balloons and baskets of free candy; signs announced that it would stay open until midnight; employees had been drafted from corporate headquarters to help handle the swarm of parents and students. We scrambled for our merchandise and joined the columns of freshman families trekking across Greenwich Village with big plastic shopping bags of stuff. It felt like ants leaving a picnic. It felt like a middle-class looting spree. It was a vast, decentralized transfer of millions of cubic feet of housewares from Bed Bath & Beyond to 5,000 individual dorm rooms. It was the free market at work.
It contributed to a bizarre day. So much frenetic motion, buying, schlepping. So much high emotion swirling through the throngs of parents and freshmen – 18-year-old excitement and nervousness, 50-year-old heartache and pride. Toasters and shoe racks became surrogates for care-taking: Our children will be on their own in the big scary world, but at least they will have buttered toast and orderly shoes.
By the time we returned to Daughter’s dorm and assembled the shoe rack and filled the underbed storage bin and made one final shopping run to the Strand bookstore for old National Geographic magazines to decorate her room, all three of us were ready for Sam and me to leave. We were utterly exhausted. Daughter wanted to hang out with her roommates. We said a quick goodbye. We didn’t take a photo. I didn’t cry. (Sam did.) We retreated to a nearby gelato store and collapsed in a corner and devoured about 1,200 calories of creamy fortitude.
My friend Ellen was dropping off her daughter at college over the weekend too, and wrote as her Facebook status, “Labor pains.” It’s an apt metaphor. I spent a lot of the past year anticipating this separation – thinking “this is our last soccer tournament,” “this is our last Halloween,” and so on. Just as my body took nine months to prepare for Daughter’s arrival, my mind was taking nine months to prepare for her departure.
Then the past week felt like the end stages of pregnancy, when you are so physically uncomfortable that you just want the damn baby to arrive already. By Sunday, after a week of seeing relatives, Daughter was desperate to be around teenage peers. Sam and I were desperate for our own bed.
Labor pains, yes, but also relief on both sides that move-in day was finally here.
Now after a 3,000-mile plane ride we’re home, minus one child. Things are different but they’re not. It’s easy to imagine she’s simply away for a day or two: The house is quiet right now, but she’s out with friends and will be back late tonight. She’s at sleep-away camp for a week. She’s upstairs in her room with the door closed, happily ignoring us.
But tonight after dinner, there was no one to unload the dishwasher, which had been her chore. I can’t count how many times over the past few years I had to badger her to unload the dishes, or growled at her sudden disappearance and grumpily unloaded them myself. But in fact, the vast majority of the time she did unload them. And it made household life a little bit easier.
Sam and I looked at each other over the racks of clean dishes as it hit both of us: Now there is nobody except us to unload them.
Not even anyone to badger or growl about.