The pile in our living room grew. It was initially seeded with a lump of bedding; a new grey plaid comforter, and complimentary grey sheets made of Jersey. Soon other items appeared, a steamer style trunk from Target, new pillows from Walmart, a modern desk lamp from Amazon. In a matter of days, the pile dominated the northeast corner of the room. My neatness tendencies had me restacking the collection, but I remained calm despite its ungainly appearance. I knew that its life in my living room was short-lived.
Wednesday evening, I pressed the automatic seat retraction button on my Ford Flex. An unseen motor whirred, and magically, the car’s rear seats disappeared.
“Will, I need your help,” I called. A grumble emerged from the family room, “Alright,” Will growled. Our job was to load the Flex in preparation for move-in day.
Will is our fourth child to go to college and our only boy. There is a difference in what boys bring to college vs. girls. We followed the recommended list given to us by his university, but there wasn’t a lot of energy expended finding the perfectly colored comforter or matching wall art. Will had gone shopping with his girlfriend, Lauren and purchased some old vinyl records with the plan that their covers would inject personality to his corner of his dorm room. That was the extent of his decorating project.
He was late to the gate when it came to securing housing, and because of this, he was relegated to a “quad,” an oddly shaped room that housed three other roommates. I hoped that his place wouldn’t turn into an “animal house.”
Thursday morning Julie, Will, and I pile into our Ford, and I plug in his residence hall’s address into the car’s navigation system. After two hours of driving, we take the exit to the university.
It is now past 1 PM, and we are all hungry. “Do you want to stop for lunch before we unload?” I ask. “Yes!” Will responds. “Will, this is your day, where do you want to eat?” I inquire. After a short pause, Will responds, “How about that, Chick-Fil-A?” I scan the street in front of me and spot it on the right and pull in.
It is hard to describe what I’m feeling. In some ways, it seems like we are on vacation and stopping for a bite. However, the atmosphere of the restaurant clearly has the vibe of a college town. I’m still in automatic mode, and I have entirely blocked any sadness. Instead, I’m feeling a subtle undertone of anxiety as I anticipate the actual move-in process.
With lunch over, we pile back into the car for the remaining mile to campus. Apparently, we were given written directions to ease the move-in process, but they never made it to the car. I drive around aimlessly as I encounter one street closed, and then another. Eventually, I make the right turn, and I’m guided to his dorm’s drop-off zone by a legion of police, each officer separated by about sixty feet.
Will’s dorm is 27 stories high and gigantic. Its architecture has a 1970’s vibe, and its awkward appendages remind of “big hair” a typical fashion from that decade. I am surprised at how small the parking lot is. An officer guides us into a parking slot with clear instructions, “Unload your items to the curb. One person stays with the items, and another goes in to register. Sir, you need to drive to the overflow lot to park.” I nod in obedience.
I glance over to move-in piles from other students and see everything from couches to massive boxes filled with clothes and room decorations. I’m grateful that Will pile is considerably smaller. His dorm has a unique elevator system that only stops on every 5th floor. In Will’s case, we will need to travel two levels above his floor, and we will have to carry everything down two floors to his room.
I drive off and follow the signs to the overflow parking lot; the mile distance seems far away. I exit the lot and start the walk back to campus. My “excellent” direction sense points me in the opposite direction extending my 1-mile walk by 50%. “My exercise for the day,” I mutter to myself.
On my walk back, Julie sends me a text telling me Will’s room number and informing me that they are off the curb and in the building. I arrive at the dorm, enter, and take the elevator two floors past Will’s. “Excuse me, can you tell me where this room is.” I show my text message to a student move-in volunteer. “Take the stairs two floors down and then go to the left.” I’m informed.
Will’s room has oddly shaped dimensions. It is “L” shaped, long with stubby alcove. Originally envisioned as a room for three, it is now designated for four. In its standard configurations, it contains two bunk beds, 4 dressers, 4 small desks, two open closet areas, and a little freestanding wardrobe to give the 4th roommate a place to hang his coat. Along the long end of the “L” is a large picture style window overlooking a parking garage and other random structures.
I enter the room to find Riley, a freshman from Darien, and his dad, Joe. Both are friendly and engaging. They inform me that Julie and Will had gone down to the main level to secure a “loft kit,” which is a set of metal bars that changes a single bunk bed into two lofts (a mattress on top with space below for a desk and dresser). Eventually, Julie and Will return carrying a set of metal tubes. I’m grateful that Joe, a general contractor, is there to guide me in the conversion from bunk bed to loft unit.
The room is starting to come together, and in the process, it becomes clear that we need a few more items. A pencil holder for the desk, a few more school supplies, a microwaveable bowl. Will puts the kibosh on Julie’s idea of getting an area rug.
Joe’s wife arrives and informs us that there is a CVS within walking distance, but just as we start to depart the dorm’s fire alarm kicks in, forcing the entire building to be evacuated. Every one marches in unison and slowly moves down the stairs to the street below.
Will’s dorm is alcohol-free, but I spy at least 4 stores advertising alcohol sales within walking distance. I think to myself, “Not much has changed since I have gone to college.” I stifle an urge to give Will my “act responsibly” talk. I know that at some point I’ll say it despite my understanding that it will have little impact. Will’s behavior will be determined by years of parenting, and his own constitution, not by some cheesy two-minute speech from me.
The CVS is inadequate for Will’s needs, and we exit only with a few cold sodas. A random person calls out, “Will, hey Will!.” It is a fellow Naperville North student who wants to exchange SnapChat information with him. I feel comforted knowing that Will has excellent social skills, and people like him.
We hike to overflow parking, get into the Flex, and drive off to Target. There he runs into another familiar face, his good friend, James who is dorming in the same residence hall. Up and down the Target aisles we go, a desk caddy here, a pencil sharpener there. We head back to his dorm, which has given the “all clear.” The fire alarm was a prank.
The line to the elevators is at least a block long, and I suggest that we take the stairs. Twelve floors later, I regret my decision. Task complete it is time to go back down to the car to hug and say goodbye. Julie gets misty-eyed, and I’m surprised that she doesn’t break down sobbing. I drag myself into the front passenger seat, and we drive off, one child lighter. In the next 11 days, we will lose two more as they travel on their life journeys.
Dear reader, you may have noticed that I didn’t talk much about my feelings during this transition. The reality is that I’m uncertain what I’m feeling. Of course, I love my son. Of course, I miss my son. However, I’m not really allowing myself to dig into my psyche at the moment. This act is not deliberate, it is automatic. I am not ready to face the reality of having my last three kids transition from home to “other,” and because of this, I’m keeping my feelings at bay. Instead, I find myself getting involved with projects, and creating little experiments, and cleaning the house. I do these acts not only as a way to symbolize that life goes on, but also to recognize that even sad events can have a positive side. Rooms will be shuffled, and Julie will finally have a study again. We will have additional flexibility in traveling. My electricity and grocery bills will be reduced.
I don’t feel that I’m in denial. Instead, I think that I’m exploring this change in its entirety. Life doesn’t stop when significant events happen, it goes on. We can decide how we deal with a given situation. Are we victims of our fate, or can we be an active force in our own lives? Today, I choose the latter. I will celebrate my children’s independence, but also relish the time that we do get to spend together. I will investigate the positives that any change brings, and I will attempt to mitigate any negatives. I won’t waste a day thinking about what I have lost; instead, I’ll focus on what I have gained.
I spied at least 4 liquor stores within walking distance from his dorm. Moving crew. Will posing, and me fixing something.
Will decorated his walls with old album covers.