It wasn't the kind of goodbye I envisioned.
I knew saying goodbye was inevitable, once the plastic tubs crammed with clothes and electronic equipment and a thoughtfully packed first-aid kit were unloaded from the van, once the futon and lofts were assembled and arranged, and once $400 worth of textbooks were procured (and most thankfully, paid by a blank check from his father). We'd enjoy one last supper together, not really tasting the bites of sandwiches consumed amidst our animated discussion about the campus and classes and crew practice.
And then, before I left for the long drive home, we'd have our goodbye scene. I'd offer a farewell speech, peppered with insightful parental advice, and we'd have lengthy mutual proclamations of love. It would end with a final hug on the sidewalk in front of his dorm.
But dinner ran late, and he had just minutes to make it to a mandatory student orientation meeting. I pulled up in front of the classroom building. He eyed the clock in the car--two minutes to get inside and find the room. He opened the car door and quickly slammed it shut.
No opportunity for any of the elements of the scene I'd already drafted in my mind.
"Good luck, honey," I told him. How did I condense a ten-minute speech into thirty seconds? "I'll miss you."
"I know." He offered a sympathetic smile. "I'll miss you too."
"So, see you in six weeks."
"Yep." He glanced toward the building and gave me a quick wave before backing away. "Love you," he yelled.
"Love you too," I called after him. But he was already several feet away, his back turned to me.
I inched forward before the line of cars behind me honked and I was forced to hit the accelerator. My last glimpse of him was a fleeting image, through the open car window, as he raced toward the building.
"Just as well," my sister told me the next day. "Short and sweet is better than a long painful goodbye."
Perhaps she's right, I thought. Although even short goodbyes can still be painful, at least they preclude massive emissions of tears. And I'd promised myself on the drive to Milwaukee that I couldn't cry.
For several weeks leading up to this, I prepared myself for a tear-filled farewell. It was, after all, the Ritual of the Strings-Cutting Parent. Particularly in the case of a youngest child, it was normal. It was justified.
But nothing makes you reassess your own life more than someone else's death.
Three days before our departure, a boy down the street was killed in a car accident.
He, too, had just graduated from high school and was preparing to head off to college. He, too, was the youngest of two children. While his parents had been helping him plan and pack for the start of his new life, on a campus three hours away, I'm sure they were filled with excitement, trepidation and grief at the idea of him leaving for school.
But in the instant it takes for an out-of-control car to strike a tree, their grief was the only emotion that remained.
Jake would be starting college next week. The event is probably still scribbled on a family calendar. No doubt it is etched upon his parents' minds.
I'm certain they would welcome, so very gladly, the opportunity now to see him off to college. To hear him say, "I love you," before they drove away, perhaps teary-eyed but knowing they'd see him again in six weeks.
As I maneuvered my way out of downtown Milwaukee that day, leaving behind my child to live the life yet awaiting him, I did cry.
But not for the reasons I once imagined.