(istock)

The writer Joan Didion once said, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

I get that, a lot of people get that. Parents eventually get that.

Our youngest child, Sam, graduated from college a few weeks ago. We arrived two days before the event, and from the airport I sent him this text: “WE’RE HERE!!!”

I was uncomfortable. Sam had been skirting the subject of graduation since December, as if May would approach more slowly if he didn’t look right at it. Now, with three days of goodbyes ahead of us, I wasn’t sure how he’d handle such a protracted exit. Four of the most defining years of his life were over. The housemates he knew as well as his own brother would be states away in only two days.

And so, I brought my most supportive parenting. I brought an attitude that matched my text, all caps and full of exclamation points.

We arrived, the door opened and there was our graduate, happy and smiling and shining like a new penny.

“So!” he said, embracing us, “Finally, right?”

No caps necessary. He had this.

Later, over a quiet dinner near campus, we gave Sam the last graduation gift we’d ever buy, along with a card expressing our thoughts on the best days to come. Near his plate, I left the last graduation letter I would write, which he quietly tucked inside his jacket to read later.

We paid the check, I gathered up the little pile of wrapping paper and ribbon, and I checked to be sure we hadn’t left personal items behind. I felt something float across my awareness. Something was missing.

No one else waited on deck. Our 12 years of college parenting would end with the announcement of our son’s first, middle and last name in two days. It was dizzying.

But that wasn’t the thing.

This was more like a puzzle piece under the rug somewhere.

What was the thing?

This summer, for the first time since his sophomore year, Sam is living with us while he waits to start a job in Boston. Many times, I’ve looked at that expectant 21-year-old face and thought about the life curve that awaits, the things he’ll learn he’s right and wrong about, the rules he’ll write for himself.

I want to ask about that curve and those rules, but I hear myself saying instead, “Can you just empty the trash can when it’s full instead of placing things on top?”

I know he will have new concerns, new rewards. He won’t worry about passing courses, but about earning bonuses. His peers won’t be looking for jobs after they graduate, but seeking affordable homes before they marry. He will live by feel, with his co-pilot, intuition.

I want to say, “Can you imagine that? Imagine that!”

But what I hear myself saying instead is, “Don’t forget to bring your clothes to the dry cleaner before nine for same-day service.”

And I know that we, parents with miles of experience behind us, will know less by feel. As Sam’s life sprawls in directions of his choosing, we will become allies at the end of a seven-digit number. When he does call, it will not be to ask for money, or to share news about his grades, but to hear the voices of people who love him. When he does see us, he may be even happier than he was when we came to take him home in May.

If.

If I can stop leaving my work in the middle of a paragraph as soon as I know he’s up, in case he needs something. Stop asking him questions he doesn’t know the answer to. Stop noticing a mood he may not wish to explain. Stop making a suggestion that has already been offered by his co-pilot.

I have that puzzle piece.

For all the “letting go” talk of when and how we must dial back our role of who-knows-best, it doesn’t happen just because it should. The start and finish of it is not signaled by a legal age, a college entrance, an empty nest. It is not about the stopping of parent behavior, or seizing the opportunity to shut up.

It is about discovering your parent outfit no longer zips all the way up, and not wishing to shrink back into it.

It is realizing you’ve already lost touch with a couple of parents you used to be.

The puzzle is done. I’ve gone back to writing all day and he’s gone back to coming and going without passing through security. We chat when we cross paths like good neighbors over the fence. He makes me laugh. I make him that chicken thing with the mushrooms. We agree. We disagree. Every so often he visits my loft when I’m writing and says, “So what’s up with you these days?”

No caps necessary. I have this.

I’ve known for a long time that children graduate from college and become the next people they’re supposed to be. Now I have learned that parents do too. Sam traded four years of hard work for a degree and a world of opportunity. I have traded 12 years of college parenting for the bigger, wider kind that won’t just help me stay in their lives, but make it easier for them to stay in mine.

That was the thing.

Susan Bonifant is an essayist, novelist and mother of four who blogs about life after the last college drop off at Attic View. She lives with her husband and writer cat in Hopkinton, NH. Follow her on twitter @SusanBonifant.

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