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The Real Goodbye isn’t when they leave, it’s when they move on

Grown up but not out. (Getty Images)

From age five until he was 18, our youngest child, Sam, played baseball. Starting with t-ball, he advanced through the myriad leagues and levels to become the high school varsity’s ace.

My husband Larry, from the beginning, assumed the care of his uniform. Before each game, he would be in the laundry room, scrubbing and removing grass and clay stains from Sam’s white baseball pants before hanging them to dry. While the other kids ambled onto the field in uniforms now stained and washed gray after months of gritty play, Sam nearly glowed on that mound in his snow-white pants.

“I just think it helps his confidence to look the part,” said my husband.

Two years ago Sam started college and we became empty nesters. Some weeks later, I asked Larry, “How is this going for you?”

“It’s okay,” he shrugged. “It’s hard to be sad when he’s doing so well.”

I wasn’t finding it hard at all.

“And,” Larry said, “to me, the real goodbye isn’t when they leave. The real goodbye is when they won’t be back.”

I stalled at holiday time – all those popsicle stick Santas with googly eyes, all those construction paper ornaments, signed in backwards letters by our preschool-age children, hanging on the tree as if to say, “I know, me too.” Real or not, this was turning out to be one bleak goodbye and I only wished to experience it once. So, in January, I put the tired questions of “what now?” away with the ornaments, and moved on.

Rising empty nesters, come sit by me.

Recently, Sam finished his sophomore year and arrived home to begin an internship in Boston. He would live at home, he decided, and commute the hour each way, a choice which would require him to rise at 4:30 and leave suit-and-tied for the bus at 5 a.m.

It would be his last summer in New Hampshire, he told us. Next year, he would seek an internship in another city, maybe another country.

The night before Sam started his job, Larry considered also getting up at 4:30 a.m. “just to drive him into the city.” Instead, he lingered near Sam’s room in the pre-dawn hours to be sure he didn’t sleep through his alarm. A day or so later, he came home with extra dress socks for Sam. At the doorway to Sam’s room that night, he paused and said, “How does he find anything in here?” Venturing in, he gathered suit jackets and pants from the back of chairs and doorknobs and said, “I’ll just take these to the dry cleaner tomorrow, it’s on my way.”

The following night, I found Larry in our laundry room pre-treating the collars on Sam’s dress shirts. I suggested that Sam might wish to manage things on his own, as he had been doing for two years. If “we” picked up his room, and washed his dress shirts weren’t “we” being disrespectful?

How easy it is to say the right thing at a perfectly wrong time, I realized later.

When Sam became a teenager he created the distance he needed to become his own person, as many teens do. He was out more than he was in, semi-conversational, argumentative and restless. Finally, along with the baseball connection he’d shared with my husband for over a decade, he was gone.

If they shared times during those transitional years when those right things to say were too hard, or wrong things came too easy, there was my husband still, before every game, making his signature contribution to Sam’s success.

I imagined the summer he hung the last of those scrubbed baseball pants to air-dry, and the question that must have occurred to him: What now?

Several days after Sam’s internship began, from the laundry room, I heard Larry’s voice as he counseled Sam.

“See? The trick is to pre-treat the collars before you wash. After they’re in the wash, it could be too late.”
“Okay, awesome,” Sam said.
“And the trick to wrinkle-free shirts is to remove them immediately from the dryer and hang them before the wrinkles set in.”
“Okay, cool.”
Then, from my son, “What about shoes? How often should I shine my shoes? Like, every day or what?”
“Well, it depends…” began my husband, right before I removed myself from earshot.

It can be difficult to say how much we will miss that last college kid who won’t be back home, but some way can be found. My advice: keep the Shout handy, because until they find their footing and earn their confidence, it’s possible to help them feel like they already have.

Susan Bonifant is an essayist and novelist from Hopkinton, NH, who blogs about life after the last college drop off at You can follow her on Twitter @SusanBonifant.

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