During his junior year of high school, my son and I woke one Friday before dawn to make a flight from our New Jersey home to visit a college in the Midwest. We took a cab from the airport straight to campus, stashed our luggage, hurried to the quad and joined a 9 a.m. tour led by a girl with jet-black hair and worn-out red high tops. As she guided us along the brick path, she joked that she wasn't good at walking backwards. I worried our tour would be cut short if she tripped and sprained her ankle. It was my first college tour; I didn't realize they all said that.
I didn't ask our tour guide about tornadoes, but I wanted to. Of course, I had dozens of questions but I had seen a rather sizable Tornado Shelter sign at the airport, and I was having visions of my son being swept right out of his dorm room and off to Oz. My son would have been mortified by that question, so I only inquired about tornadoes when I was alone. I asked the woman from the admissions department, three students studying on the lawn and, later, the hotel clerk. Aside from me, no one seemed very worried about tornadoes.
After the tour, we went to a special presentation about the Engineering school. A young professor stood at a podium and spoke to a classroom full of kids and parents. Halfway through, my son passed me a note: "She has four thumbs." Indeed, the professor did have two thumbs on each hand -- a regular sized thumb, and then a smaller, helper-thumb right next to it. Once my son and I noticed all her thumbs, neither of us could pay attention to a word she said. I folded the note carefully and tucked it in my bag, just as I used to when my son presented me his drawings as a little boy.
We left the presentation early to explore on our own, both of us desperately tying to find a sign that he might fit in here -- that this might be the right place for him. How can you tell such a thing? I wondered. This was all so new to me. Like the Engineering professor, I felt like I was all thumbs, too.
Eventually we came upon some big stone benches beside the student center where we could sit in the noon sun. We shared our perceptions thus far and I reminded my son to take out his earring before his interview.
"Every tour guide was wearing an earring, Mom." That was true; many kids seemed to have an earring.
"Still, you should take it out," I said.
"It's fine," he said, a phrase I've come to understand means "back off."
Under normal circumstances, this earring conversation would precipitate a fight, but I had made a vow to keep the college search process light and amicable, and this being our maiden voyage, I was still sweetly committed. So, rather than launching into my anti-earring speech, I said, "I'm going to get us some coffee," and disappeared into the vast and stately student center to count how many boys were wearing earrings.
The coffee area was all the way in the back; I passed a lot of earrings. My son has a dairy allergy, so I was going to order his coffee black with sugar, but when I got up to the counter I noticed something that, to me, seemed a little remarkable: the student center served soy milk. And not just any soy milk, but the exact brand and flavor that I buy for my son at home - one so elusive that I sometimes have to go to three supermarkets just to hunt it down.
My son's allergy has never been life threatening, but it can be severe. Over the years, it's become part of his identity. Everyone who knows him knows he's allergic to milk. When he was growing up, I used to feel awful about never being able to eat pizza with him, so I would go out of my way to get him the one brand and flavor of soy milk that he actually liked -- it's extra sweet and comes in a purple container.
Things like food allergies can make some mothers protect their young differently -- perhaps more fiercely -- because there's a part of you that believes you're the only one who truly understands what your child needs. This kind of tenacity makes life more complicated when it's time to let them go.
Granted, it's not so unusual for a coffee bar to carry soy milk. Starbucks always has it. But I certainly wasn't expecting it in a college student center in the Midwest. In a place I considered Cow Country.
And not only did they offer his brand as a coffee lightener, there was a whole refrigerated case filled with little purple pouches of it -- like grab-and-go juice boxes. It looked like there were enough soy milk pouches for every earringed kid in the student center.
As parents -- as mothers -- we might tell ourselves we're looking for a school that provides our children with the best possible opportunities in life, but on some level we all just want our kids to be happy and safe. Me? I was still looking for A Sign. And at that moment, I felt I'd found it.
"You have to go here," I said to him as we sipped our coffees and walked to the Admissions building. I made a final plea for him to lose the earring, nearly frantic because suddenly I felt the stakes were very high.
Those little purple pouches of soy milk in the commissary meant a lot of things to me: that this was the right school for my son; that he would be safe here; that he'd be happy and have a good, fulfilling life. They held the promise that he wouldn't have to struggle, that his heart would never be broken, and that he wouldn't be swept away by a fluke tornado. I can't even begin to describe what a relief it is to find a college that you know, without a shred of doubt, will be the perfect place for your child.
My son didn't go to that school. In fact, he didn't even apply. He stayed in the Northeast, opting for hurricanes over tornadoes and spontaneously stopped wearing his earring sometime during his senior year, months after I'd lost steam about the issue. I learned so much during that college-hunting year about what he needed versus what I needed -- lessons that came with my own struggle and heartbreak. But learn them, I did. The hardest one being that those signs I was looking for -- they're not mine to find. In fact, I don't even know if the school he goes to serves soy milk at all.