It’s a spectacle I’ve become familiar with over my years as a school psychologist. On the first day of each new school year, and for several days after, a small crowd of parents stands at the school’s closed front gates, watching their children walk off to their new classrooms.
This year, I missed the first few days of school to take my older son to college. When I returned to work, on the fourth day of school, I still felt emotionally spent from my trip. As I approached the school and spotted the small gathering of parents still holding on at the front gates, I felt an ironic twist. In years past, my sympathies would have hardened by now. “Let go, already,” I’d imploringly think to myself. This year, I felt I was right there with them.
I adopted Matt (with his younger brother, Lucas) from Brazil as he was turning 12 years old. When adopting an older child, parenting starts off late in the game, yet the parenting paradox is the same: wanting to deeply attach to and invest in your child while eventually having to “let go” and preparing him to live his own life.
It’s an understatement to say that it was a struggle to get to this point with my son at all, with our relationship marked by disruptive attachment issues. But I held on through the explosive outbursts, purposeful resistance to academic achievement, and indifference to others’ feelings. I became less fearful of Matt’s struggles to reconcile with his earlier history of loss, trauma, mistrust, and a heightened need for control. I also gave up on my need for any immediate parental gratification, learning instead to appreciate the gradually emerging bond between us.
As I relaxed, Matt did too. Instead of keeping a tight lid on anything he thought about or did, he began to share more. When he did, I had to keep a lid on my wanting “more,” for fear he’d immediately retreat. I had to practice the same restraint whenever Matt expressed any physical affection: coming up from behind me with an awkwardly impulsive squeeze of my neck or face or being more gentle with a one-armed hug or a lean-in to my side, Sometimes I’d be allowed to reciprocate and other times I’d just have to stand there in quiet acceptance.
In the weeks leading up to our departure, the kid who resisted doing his work, chores, or anything else he didn’t want to do took total charge in handling his preparatory college tasks. He even cleaned out his room, and kept it neat. I became used to his customary retreats and resistance to encouragement as the thought of taking any risk was too threatening after a childhood full of hurt and disappointment. Occasionally, he approached me with a question or request for assistance, but I didn’t have to do anything. My son usually resisted direct influence, yet I learned to set things in motion behind the scenes, as when I asked the soccer coach at the start of high school to invite him to try out. The kid who still is wary of the past, having kept him from even thinking about his future, was ensuring his readiness to move forward in life.
I’d like to say that I was ready for him to go, but like any parent about to send his child out into the broader confines of life, I was plagued with a nagging fear of the unknown. And as an adoptive parent of an older child, I was apprehensive about how his still tenuous attachment to me and to our family would play out in the ensuing years, when I’d no longer be a constant, physical presence in his life. I was feeling unfinished; eight years didn’t seem enough, and I was having trouble with “letting go.”
In heading out on the morning of our departure, I knew better than to ask if he’d like to take “one last look” around the house. But I asked anyway and received the expected “Nah” in response. I hadn’t even turned out the lights before Matt had squeezed in with his brother in the front seat of the packed car. I feigned a feeble “Hold on, I forgot something” as I suddenly felt the urge to retreat backwards.
I went back inside to take a quick look at Matt’s uncharacteristically uncluttered bedroom. I fought back some tears as I flashed back eight years to the night before my departure for Brazil, when I had stood silently in the shared entryway, peeking into the neatly made up bedrooms awaiting their occupants. As I detailed in my memoir, See You Tomorrow, I can vividly recall the “picture perfect” image of how “the comforters were neatly folded, pillows fluffed, pictures hung straight, and toys, games, and books (were) smartly arranged.” Though Matt had left some personal artifacts scattered about, and had firmly told me several times over the preceding weeks that he didn’t want “anything changed,” I wondered if he had purposefully left his room roughly how he first found it—unlived in.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether my son ever really lived here. Having adopted him at the cusp of his teen years, the pseudo sense of independence Matt projected from the start was often naively ascribed to a developmentally normal phase. I knew better. He had to be tougher on the outside and hide his fear of intimacy. Though this instinct has relaxed somewhat over the years, Matt persists in his tendency to keep others at a comfortable distance.
Having regained my composure, we set off. First we’d be dropping Lucas off for his first day as a high school junior. The ride to Lucas’s high school would be short and quiet; relations between the brothers had become increasingly ambivalent over the past year. Both had repeatedly expressed their relief, if not happiness, over letting each other go their separate ways since the college choice was made.
Used to Lucas taking control over the car radio with his personal, rather eclectic, musical playlist, at first I didn’t think much of his dabbling that morning. But as I listened to his selection, the Eden Project’s “Times Like These,” tears began to flow. “It’s been a long, long time, we’ve come a long, long way… The future’s so bright. This is our time. Imma live it how I dream… It’s taken so long to feel okay.” I kept my gaze fixated on the road, terrified of disrupting a private moment between brothers, whether they knew it or not.
I was sobbing quietly as the song reached its ending: “Because it’s all we know. And it’s only change. Sun sets on the old. But we’re nocturnal anyway. And this is how we will know it’ll be okay. There are times we will hold when our memories fade. Sometimes it takes times like these to know you’re in the right place.” By the time we reached the school, neither had said anything, I had dried up, and their goodbyes to each other couldn’t have been more awkward. “Well, have fun in college,” Lucas simply said. I could barely hear Matt’s mumbled reply, something akin to his usual “Yea, yea, whatever.” So much for my idealized television sitcom moment.
The move-in the following day went fairly smoothly. Matt held onto his minimalist ways, save for his oversized Brazilian flag covering the wall space above his bed. His roommate wouldn’t arrive until the next week, but Matt decided to stay in his half-empty dorm room rather than come with me to the hotel that night, our last together; he had his first cross-country practice early the next morning, and was anxious to be on site and ready. It was OK—I could still tell him that I would “see him tomorrow.”
While Matt was at practice, I picked Lucas up at the airport. I had flown him up so that he could check out his brother’s new surroundings at the college, for them to have a more meaningful parting of ways, and for moral support and company for the drive home. After a parting lunch in the dining hall, before I knew it, it was time to bid my son goodbye.
I really thought I was going to be OK. After all, I had certain things I wanted to say, and had rehearsed them in my mind to keep my words brief and not overly sentimental—but after several false starts, all I could do was reach out to hug him. Even so, I held on for too long, until he softly pushed me away, simply claiming “that’s too much.”
Lucas intuitively came to both our rescues with a “Come on, Father,” although not before they both surrendered into a quick hug. Perhaps they’d declare something of a truce. Their ties to each other are, after all, inescapable.
When we got in the car, we found that Matt had left his new water bottle. We summoned him back down and I steadied myself for a redo. I motioned for Matt to come over to the driver’s side, where he looked at me expectantly, and dare I say patiently, for me to finally get out an “I love you.” He responded in kind with his trademark “yea, yea”—but no “whatever”—as he bounced back up the walkway steps. There, surprisingly, he stopped and turned around, smiling somewhat laughingly back at us as we goofily waved to him.
I then watched in what felt like slow motion as a huge piece of my life, a big part of what makes me who I am, break away. I knew it was right, I knew it was supposed to happen, but I didn’t want to let go…but knew I had to.
On the drive home, I asked Lucas about his song choice the few days before. As is typical for him, he immediately launched into an intellectualized discourse about its origin as a tribute for the songwriter’s fans struggling with his decision to leave behind “Eden Project” for the new name “Eden,” and a different musical style. Lucas’s understanding was that he wrote the song as a vehicle to express his feelings and reassure his fans that change is normal, and they shouldn’t worry because he was in the “right place.”
Lucas avoided discussing how the song made him feel, but added that he thought it might be a “comfort” to his brother as he embarked on the next phase of his life. As we talked, he replayed the song. I started to tear up again, and I struggled to tell him how deeply the song had touched me. As if on cue, Lucas said that he’d also seen his brother cry when it had played.
“He really cried?” I asked, with obvious incredulity in my wavering tone. “Yeah,” Lucas coolly replied.
Keeping it in perspective, I was reassured. Matt was looking forward to a “brighter tomorrow”; he wasn’t as fearful of the past as he used to be. I had done my parenting job well enough, but also knew that it wasn’t finished. Somehow, I had become that secure base Matt never thought he’d need, but deep down had always wanted.
Almost from the start of our first days together, Matt would unfailingly utter, “See you tomorrow” every night at bedtime. It soon became our ritual, our family anthem, seemingly serving as a declaration that “stability shall reign” to counter a prolonged earlier history of familial instability. As time passed, and Matt started taking more stock into tomorrow’s promise as opposed to its foreboding, he no longer needed to speak those words of comfort. And as I remained a constant for my son over the ensuing years, he grew to trust that I would be there, no matter what. I knew this trust was in place because, otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to let me go as he did…never mind whether I’d have been able to let him go as I did.