What I Always Meant to Say to My Young Adult Children

Seven years ago, as my three children began leaving home, I was despondent. Sure, my children were healthy, well-adjusted human beings, and I was grateful for that, but our family was never going to be the same. I was never going to be the same.

"I would never have had children if I had known you were all going to leave me!" I said over and over as, first, my daughter, and then my two sons left for college.

I was kidding, in a way, and fortunately, my children never seemed particularly pained by our separations. Last year, when my daughter was in Chicago in grad school and planning a solo trip to Nepal, I looked out the window at the snow pummeling down outside and said the first thing that came to my mind: "I hope I don't fall and break a hip while you're gone."

"You know it's unhealthy for you to say stuff like that to me, don't you?" my daughter said. "If I went to a counselor, she would tell me that was bad for me."

"Well, if you know it's unhealthy, then you don't need a counselor," I said.

"Jesus," she said.

And when her visa did not arrive in time for her to go to India, she bought a one-way ticket to Nicaragua. From there, she crossed into Costa Rica and emailed me photos of her ziplining, bungee jumping and so on.

"Great, honey," I emailed her. "Have fun! Be safe!"

Because what I could I do? She was already there.

However, as my oldest son, Avery, prepared to move to Boulder to begin a graduate assistantship this summer, I was increasingly anxious. He had attended college a few hours from our home in North Carolina, so I was used to him being away, but this was so far. What if he couldn't handle the pressure? What if he got sick? What if he went rock climbing, and his harness snapped?? He was 22 years old, and he was ready -- more than ready. But still.

My plan was to drive Avery and all his belongings the 1,500 miles to Boulder -- 23 hours -- with only one overnight stop along the way. Then, I would spend a week helping him settle in before heading home via the same route. Because my husband had to stay home to work, I asked my younger son, who was 20, to come along and help with the drive home. At first, he flat-out refused.

"Come on," I said. "It'll be fun!"

"No," he said.

"Well, I guess I'll be fine driving home alone," I said. "I mean, I probably won't wreck."

"Fine," he said. "I'll go."

We loaded my Mountaineer with everything Avery had ever wanted or needed or might ever want or need -- clothes, guitars, keyboards, speakers, pots and pans -- and then we headed out. On the way, we drank coffee and ate Dairy Queen blizzards and jammed to Old Crow Medicine Show and collectively navigated lane changes ("Everybody find an open spot and look!") until, finally, on the second evening of our trip, the Rockies were in sight.

"There they are!" Avery said.

It was dusk, the sun just dipping into the horizon. In the distance, the dark, hazy expanse extended from the road to the sky, from one end of the earth to the other, and Avery's excitement over this spectacular place, with its breathtaking cliffs and magnificent canyons, with mountain lions and black bears and coyotes and all the liberal, rock-climbing, earth-loving yogis one could ever hope to know, was palpable.

It was, of course, the way things should be. My son was pursuing a degree a little like mine -- journalism with an emphasis in environmental issues. He wanted to educate people about climate change, to make people think and feel, to change the world, no less. He was, in fact, the man I had raised him to be. Still, I was profoundly sad.

On one of the last days I was in Boulder, Avery had a toe injury which necessitated a minor surgical procedure at an urgent care clinic. We were there for hours. Outside, the sun beat down, and in the distance, the Rockies -- stunning, even through the Plexiglas strip mall windows. Afterwards, we walked to a bagel shop where we sat at a corner table. It was something we had done weekly when he was little -- a walk to the bagel shop where he always ordered the same thing -- an everything bagel with plain cream cheese.

"If you're not happy," I said to him now as he downed his bagel in three bites, "I mean, I'm not saying you won't be or you can't be, but if you ever think you've made a mistake, it's OK to change course, OK? If you aren't happy, you can always tell me. You know that, right?"

It seemed like the most important thing to say, the thing that, throughout all of my fumbling attempts, I had most wanted to say to my children: Be happy.

"I know, Mom," he said. "I know."

We stared at the cashier, a delicate-boned young woman with fantastic tattoos and a necklace with a purple stone, and I thought of the time years ago when I was weed eating in our back yard. Then 2 years old, Avery, blonde, blue-eyed, and rosy cheeked, had appeared on the back deck. He was wildly sobbing. I threw down the weed eater and ran to him.

"What's wrong?" I asked him.

"Ladies don't weeder!" he screamed. Then even more emphatically -- "Ladies don't weeder!"

Later, when he recovered, he told me that when he grew up, he would always live next to me, cut my grass and rid my life of dandelions and crabgrass and clover. Perhaps I should have taken that moment to inform my son that girls could do anything boys could do. Instead, I said what I truly believed: "That would be wonderful."

"She's beautiful," I said now. "All the women here are beautiful. But I swear to God if you come home with one of those perpetually stoned girls who sleeps in the park..."

"Mom," he said.

"I just don't want my grandchildren to smell like weed all the time. That's all I'm saying."

"Mom," he said again.

And as we walked out into the sultry summer air, my son was not a bearded grad student limping his way to the car. He was not a grown man with a college degree, a capable adult who had just the day before hunched behind me as I scrambled to the top of the Flatirons, spotting me to make sure I didn't tumble to a premature death. In my mind, my son was as he would always be -- three feet tall and towheaded, his tiny soul overflowing with consternation and love.