The day I had to leave our eldest at Uni and fly back to Hong Kong began as a perfectly planned one.
Weather-wise, it was bright and balmy with an unmistakably productive frenzy to the air - it seemed that everyone in the area was either a college student being moved into a dorm, college orientation staff or family members doing the big college send-off. This was Boston after all, with over 50 colleges and universities in the vicinity. On a 20 minute walk from my hotel to the art museum I passed through no fewer than five urban campuses. All week we’d exclaimed that it felt like we had been sucked into a ‘Back to School’ bizarro universe- everything we breathed and touched screamed that we’d careened onto the surreal parenting path to Uni: It started at the empty aisles of Twin XL sheets at Target and accelerated with each and every orientation and line for newly opened student bank and cellular accounts, finishing finally with move-in day and meeting of roommates and their parents. A whirlwind until finally D-day, the day I’d depart.
Congratulating myself on having had the foresight to fly out late afternoon so we could have as much of my last day in town together, I meticulously plotted logistics like I was organising Back to School Night: Up by 8:30AM, gym until 10, dressed, packed and checked out by 11:15, last minute souvenir shopping for the siblings until 12:30 (Warby Parker, Twinkies, Brandy Melville!) and then on to my final Boston lobster meal- having had no fewer than one a day at that point, I saw no reason to quit a winning streak. He would breakfast, attend morning orientation, help out one roommate (an incredible guitarist with visual impairment) then meet me a few blocks away for lunch after which we’d hit three other important errands before dropping stuff off at his dorm and maybe meeting his final roommate.
He was forty minutes late and hadn’t thought to text. Left late because roomie needed help walking back from the practice room and he didn’t want to rush him, then forgot a bag, then wrong turn, confused Google Maps directions - whatever it was, it happened. Of course I wasn’t going to spend our last meal lecturing so I shut myself up pounding down the biggest lobster roll I could order while inwardly freaking out, all the while nodding my head understandingly as I mentally scratched off a surprise stop in Eataly for gelato and recalculated whether we could still make that stop at Whole Foods to pick up sushi since I knew it would be a while when he would treat himself to some.
Sushi was necessary so in 15 minutes flat we got through lunch and hotfooted it to Whole Foods which was thankfully near our final appointment: cymbals shopping. We’d hit Guitar Centre days before but couldn’t bear to buy cymbals at a place that primarily sold guitars. Thanks to Google, we found ourselves a rare shop specialising in only cymbals a few blocks away. The only caveat was the gentleman who ran it was on vacation and wouldn’t arrive to open for us until 1:30PM on D-day. Needing to be at the airport by 3:30PM I figured that was tight but could be done. Of course, the owner was also late - college drop-off traffic! - so we weren’t let in until 2. I recalculated, figuring we could be done and out in 15 minutes.
Of course that wasn’t what actually happened because this is the running theme of what we parents do - we painstakingly plan as the universe snorts and cavorts.
When we were finally let into a dark basement filled with all sheens of bronze and brass for high hats, crashes and rides with a special soundproof practice room including drum kit to test everything out, (really it was the cymbals mecca) I knew 15 minutes would easily stretch to 45, even 60. And when he and the shop owner (who turned out to be a percussion professor) began discussing sounds using adjectives that aren’t usually used to describe sounds: washy, bright, dark, I found myself completely mesmerised. Here was the son we had raised for the last 18 years, the one I had made it my priority to know as much as possible, stepping off from that shared space into an entirely different one, quietly holding his own. At one point they discussed how ‘metallic’ a certain brand sounded and I pitifully attempted conversation by musing out loud that they must all sound metallic because they were all, uh, made of metal. They looked at each other, paused and chuckled, in on a mind melt I could never begin to touch.
Standing there watching him entranced with each nuance, hitting crash after crash, testing ride after ride, as he calmly readjusted and replaced combinations of hi-hats with a meticulousness and mastery I had never seen was where I found myself making my mental goodbye. I marvelled at the journey that brought us here and felt an immense sense of gratitude for the village he’d just left behind- extended family who’d been generous with time, love and gifts, friends and folks who had taught and inspired him along the way, the school that had gotten him to his acceptance not only to this college but of the thoughtful, creatively left-of-center kind self he’d grown into these last ten years. I found myself smiling at the irony that as his parent, I had been wired to plot with all my will for him to be fine (a little like the day itself) and here he was, exceeding those expectations in an area that utterly confounded and excluded me, bantering easily with a fellow musician on a level of camaraderie and understanding that was in fact, better than fine. He was solid. And there was no denying that he really was good to go.
I can honestly say it felt right to leave him after that. I still couldn’t bear to say goodbye and mumbled something hurriedly like “see you in December” during a quick hug, but it was as clear as the day that unraveled that other plans were afoot at this juncture and more than even home, he was moving on to new unknowns, where he now belonged.
Here’s the final photo I took before we parted. He’s heading for his dorm carrying new cymbals on his back. He began at The Harbour School in 2009 and graduated as a member of the Class of 2019.