When Your Heart Leaves Home

The daughter of an e-friend of mine recently left home for college. My friend was in tears from missing her. (For his FB status he wrote, “Havng a child is like having your heart walk outside your body. And tomorrow my heart leaves for NY.”) I asked if he’d like to write out his feelings. I’m sharing with you (with his permission, of course) what he penned in response, because I know that this time of year a lot of parents are feeling in their hearts what this good man is feeling in his.

Yesterday I sent my little girl off to college, all the way on the other side of the country. And this is how eighteen years go by: she was the first child, the first grandchild on either side. She was born six hours after my uncle died. So I was at the hospital for the delivery, and then got on a flight to go to a funeral, carrying a Polaroid photo of her and her mother.

The blur: the bassinet, baby food, diaper bags, Disney Princesses, bounce houses, play dates, rocking her to sleep, pre-school, swing sets, her blankie, her first dress-up shoes, hitting her head on a brick wall and off to the hospital for the CAT Scan, Halloween costumes (at six she dressed as Mulan; last year she dressed as Edith Piaf), me at the piano teaching her how to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and then I take her to an opera when she was 11 and at intermission she tells me she wants to be an opera singer. And then driving her to voice lessons, and driving her to school, sharing a commute with her for three years, talking about her dreams, about shows we’ve seen, about trouble with friends and teachers and classes, and watching her sleep in the car during finals weeks, and more performances, and college applications, and auditions, and a road trip, and throwing snowballs at each other, and she decides to go to the East Coast for school. And her in one more show this summer (The Drowsy Chaperone. People lined up to tell me how good she was.)

And then she’s gone.

And her room is still the same: Audrey Hepburn poster, bookshelves (Jane Austen, the Twilight series), and as she left all I could do was ask if she packed a Bible: “It’s right here, dad.” I know she packed a tiny shred of her blankie. And there’s this feeling of … I couldn’t do enough, couldn’t give her enough, wasn’t there enough. But she doesn’t see it that way, and gave me the biggest hug on the way to the airport. And that’s why it hurts so much. I tell her I love her every day, and then she leaves and I know it because I’m crying. So many days she’s been the best part of my life. Through lousy days at work, car accidents, bounced checks, all the stuff about life that just plain sucks. When there’s nothing redeeming about it at all, no great message, no lesson, just a pile of irritating depressing crap, she has been the thing that made me smile. I don’t mean this to be all about me. It’s her story, not mine. I’m excited for her, and happy for her, and it’s time she was out in the world. She’s a lot better prepared for it than I was at her age. And she’ll be back for a visit in a couple of months. But today, I sat on the edge of her bed and it was just hard to get up and go on with it. Someone once said “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” But today is a day for crying and crying hard. She’s grown into a beautiful young woman and I miss her so much and it’s only been a day.

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  • Oh yeah…I know just how this man feels. I’ve been weeping over possessions and memories all day long. She is only two hours away…and even though I know she will be back soon for a visit, it is the end of an era. She is my youngest. The last to leave.

    There is a verse in Malachi that says something like this….the vision is for an appointed time….though it tarries, wait for it, it will not tarry. That is child rearing. The days sometimes seem endless and filled with drudgery and it feels like “these kids will not give me one moment of peace!!!” But oh…it goes by so fast. It does not tarry.

    The hand prints get higher and higher and then…..they disappear.


  • Mindy

    Awww, friend of John’s, I share your tears. My oldest, my beautiful, brilliant, anxious drama queen flew to the other side of the world just a little over a week ago to spend her junior year of high school as an exchange student in China. CHINA. Do you know how far away that is?! And how impossibly, painfully hard it’s been to sit here, on one end of a very long phone connection and hear her cry with homesickness and not be able to fold her into my arms and make it all better??

    Of course you do. Because you are a parent, missing the best of yourself. I nod knowingly, ruefully, in your direction. I thought I had two more years of her before I had to set her free to find her place in the world. Turns out she had other plans, and even though she’s doubting herself like crazy right now, I know she’ll find her footing. I only wish she’d been able to stuff me into her bag with her Cheshire cat so that when she needed me, I’d be right there.

    Instead, I’m right here for her younger sister, who is blossoming before my eyes into another young woman I am honored to parent. We’ll miss her sister together, and enjoy each other while she’s gone.

    Hang in there, dad. Your college freshman is a lucky girl to be so missed.

  • Don Whitt

    What a wonderful father. What a great man. How lucky his daughter is to have a parent who is selfless, loving, dedicated and loyal. This act, this letting go of such a precious thing as a son or daughter to live their life, is a mitzvah and deserves a blessing that surpasses most. Thank you to the reader and writer for sharing. I’m grabbing a hanky…

  • Don Whitt

    Oh, Mindy.

  • As the Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav said, “Everything in this world has a heart; the heart itself has a heart.”

  • I just read your blog post at the suggestion of a friend, and I am sitting her sobbing because we just moved our only son to college (albeit only three hours away) last Wednesday, but it feels like a month. The first 24 hours were the worst. Everything you said describes what I am feeling, what I felt the day we said goodbye after moving him into his dorm. “So many days she’s been the best part of my life…When there’s nothing redeeming about it at all, no great message, no lesson, just a pile of irritating depressing crap, she has been the thing that made me smile.” EXACTLY! Like you, I sat on the edge of my son’s bed the next day and cried, and cried hard. Happy for him, time for him to get on with his life, but missing him so much. Thank you so much for writing this. And if I can eventually stop sobbing, I intend to check out the rest of your blog….:)

  • Suz

    I feel it; I did it last fall. Boot Camp in October, Afghanistan coming up in January. We had him for two weeks this last January, and we might get Christmas. It’s hard, but you have the right attitude: celebrate the woman she is becoming. She will continue to amaze you.

  • Mindy

    I know, Don – it’s been quite a ride. She’s a trooper. She’s in a language intensive in Beijing for another week, then heads to Nanjing, where she will move in with her host family and get ready to start school. I still can’t really grasp that I won’t see her til June. She was JUST a tiny, smiley, rashy baby being plunked into my arms in that very country – I swear it was just a minute ago! And now she’s back there, finding out for herself what living in her birthcountry is all about. So far, we’ve talked almost every day. I’m trying to back her off to every other, then more, til we are at once a week, but she’s just not ready for that yet. Makes me happy to know she still needs me, at least for now. 🙂

  • cat rennolds

    Took my boy off a week ago. He’s only 17 but madly gifted and desperately needed to go…All the way home I kept thinking, I forgot something, I KNOW I forgot something…oh yeah, my baby!!!!! My 6’4″ baby boy.

    I’m a lousy driver, so I was concentrating fiercely on driving home in one piece. Got out, got to the front door, and cried and cried and cried. My 20 year old and my TWO year old are both still home, which is some help, but whenever baby says, “Where’s my Laddin?”(she can’t say Leeland) it just breaks me up.

  • Mike

    Tomorrow morning at 7am I leave with my daughter to take her to college, my alma mater, and the school Annie has also chosen. I was just thinking of the day she was born and how those 18.5 years have flown by and now she is a young adult ready to go out on her own: we just have to have confidence in her ability to make the right choices and take the opportunity to run with it. I’ve told her how exciting and fun and interesting this will be and that she will love the experience, and to take advantage of all that the next four years have to offer. It makes me feel terrific to know that she is anxiously looking forward to the next phase of her life, as though she is prepared, yet at the same time I always wonder if I’ve done enough for her. Time will tell.

  • cc

    Yes, my daughter would have been left to her own devices at engineering school already but the hurricane has intervened. So she is still here, waiting anxiously, clad in C-list clothes with all the things she loves in boxes in the dining room, all the people she loves hovering about, knowing she’s going to a place where we don’t belong. In the last few weeks, I feel a piece of me has come undone, a part of me broken, malfunctioning, while I am thrilled and joyful and a tad envious that my first child is off to the experience of her lifetime. As much as she thinks “Will I find friends? Can I do the work?” I think “Will she be safe?” “Who will guard her heart?” “Will she remember to launder reds and whites separately?”

    With prayer for protection from, well, the World, I await word from the University that all is safe so we can drive her the five adrenaline-filled hours and leave her with strangers. I will make her bed, perhaps my last mommy act in her life, I will fais la bise (our signature family act of affection), I will make every effort to be nothing but a dorky and sappy and hopefully dry-eyed mom (fat chance). Then I will cry and cry in the car, husband helpless, and me inconsolable during the five hours home while I self-talk my way into trusting that when we gave her over to Christ (at her baptism, the priest declared that she was Christ’s Own forever) that Jesus meant that he would go with her–to college, to wherever she will go. And I will wait to see how it will come to be that I will think it is normal that the child who I grew inside me, who I pasted to me for a year or two, who I struggled with, cheered for, taught to drive, to sing, to say “Please;” the child for whom I read aloud, cleaned up glitter and glue, made goop, coaxed gum out of her hair, sewed Halloween Costumes, brewed tea so she could stay up studying, filled out countless forms, wrote endless checks and doled out $twenties, gave and received shoulder rubs, laughed and directed and accepted, how it can be that she is. now. gone.

    But she is here tonight, waiting out the storm, so I will go watch the weather channel with her and act as if this is all an adventure and not a trauma, even while my stomach hurts worse than my heart (it seems impossible).

    Please, God, protect our beloved children, and salve us parents who send them out.

  • Don Whitt

    I lived in China (HK) for awhile and loved it. So will she. You’re an awesome mom, Mindy.

  • Bittersweet! I know these feelings well. It is a real transition in life. The picture is beautiful.

  • Val

    Its part of giving them the wings to fly into their own lives. And it hurts. My daughter is older, 26.She hasn’t lived at home for 8 years, but she keeps leaving. She is home for the weekend, but flies away tomorrow. Next Monday, she flies to Africa, for a year! Its the second time she has gone there. This time she is a medical student doing AIDs research. When she leaves tomorrow I will feel the emptiness again, the empty bedroom, the empty chair at the table, the empty place in my heart. But I am so proud of her for pursuing her dreams. Turn to the pride,John’s friend, you have given your girl a wonderful base to fly from….and she’ll return to you again and again.

  • Christy

    Beautiful…..and yes, my windows are leaking. My boys are still in elementary school and I know this dear father’s story will be mine in what will seem like tomorrow. I remember attending my first breastfeeding support group when my first was only a couple weeks old and seeing the other mothers with their 2 and 4 month olds and saying to myself, “Oh no! He’s going to be that HUGE in just 2 months!” My heart had already left my chest….and they keep needing bigger and bigger shoes. What a joy they are.

  • Driversuz44

    Yeah, my baby boy…

  • And I consider myself lucky if my son texts me about money every 3 or 4 days…….!

  • My heart, my only daughter, followed her dream to college in New York
    three years ago. Reading your story brought back the memory of that day.
    Dropping her off and driving away was the hardest thing I’ve ever done — especially when, in the middle of the Lincoln tunnel in a rented van full of stuff we had shopped for all summer, she panicked and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to go!” Next week she begins her senior year and is a confident New Yorker. In May, in another rented van, we moved her from the dorm building to an apartment, another learning, growing experience.  And yes, I was up very late last night watching to see if hurricane Irene would be coming close to that apartment.  Because that’s where my heart lives now.

  • Two weeks ago I buried a 16-year-old girl … member of my congregation … 4.0 GPA, drama club, yearbook, etc. … wanted to go to Texas A&M and be a vet … she loved animals.  Sorry to rain on your parade, but our little girl isn’t going to come home for the holidays.  Be proud of your children, celebrate their accomplishments, hug them and hold them up, give yourself credit for all that you’ve done to help these young men and women prepare for life … but please, don’t compare sending your child off to university to having your heart leave home …

  • Anonymous

    C’mon, Mary. “Sorry to rain in your parade”?

  • DR

    While I am so sorry for your loss, to take this lovely moment, project your own grief on to it and try to diminish it is so terribly inappropriate.  I’d suggest not reading online until you have a better sense of yourself and have a more reasonable perspective .

  • Christy

    Mary, I have to agree with DR and John. Pastoral care means knowing who the most important one is…..and that is always the one who is right in front of you. In counseling, there is no room to compare the griefs of others. Grief is grief. Loss is loss. It is subjective to the person. To say one’s pain is not pain enough because others have lost more is to miss the opportunity to minister to the one who needs it most at the moment. “At least your child isn’t dead” isn’t a particularly therapeutic counseling technique.

  • Kat

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m on the other side of this relationship, as a college senior looking at graduate programs. I chose to do my undergrad at the university in my home city, so as a result I live in my own apartment but still see my mom every Sunday after church. Now I am looking at grad schools that are hundreds of miles away, and it has caused a lot of discord between my mother and I.

    This whole time I thought it was because she was mad about the thousands of dollars in loans I would have to take out to cover the cost. But now I realize that I’m not giving her enough credit. She’s not angry… she’s just sad. She thought I would stay within 30 minutes’ driving distance forever, and she’s having to grapple with the fact that I’m not. It’s hard for me too, but reading all of these comments from parents about the grief and loss of watching their children move away to college… now I realize what my mom is going through. She’s not just mad about money. She’s upset about her little girl moving away to a place where we can’t have Sunday afternoon lunch.

    Thank you so much for this article and the insight it gave me. I think you just helped solve one of the biggest problems in our relationship right now. God bless!

  • Sara

    I’m sitting here sobbing for the first time since taking my youngest and only son to Texas A&M, 4 hours away, a month ago. Empty nest syndrome has set in with a vengence, and I miss him with a continuous ache. He does text me nearly every day just to share news – he joined an on-campus Christian group, his roommate locked him out and he had to spend the night on someone’s sofa,… oops, Mom, sorry, I had a tiny fender bender….

    He’s my miracle, the child I wasn’t supposed to be able to have, the light of my life. I raised him to be independent, and it’s been truly wonderful to hear how he’s blossoming from a solitary, quiet, loving boy into the confident outgoing young man he’s become. God richly blessed me with this child, and I’m so grateful to have had a part in his life.

  • Val P.

    This is an old post, but I just found it and it’s new to me ~ brought tears to my eyes too. My beautiful 25 yr old daughter is a married woman, living 1000 miles away. She’s been gone for 2 years now, and although we’re close and talk often it is still hard. She came to visit last month and stayed for a week – luckily my husband took her to the airport to go home, that is always the hardest part for me. This time was especially hard, as she’s 7 months pregnant with the first grandbaby. A little girl who will be her treasure, as my daughter has always been mine.

    Life has not always been so sweet – my ex and I divorced when my daughter was 14. Talk about bad timing! She took a nosedive off the deep end, got in with a really scary crowd, and for a time ran away from home and lived with this group of kids that slept on friend’s floors, in people’s flower beds…anything to keep from going home. That did not last long, thank God. But there were other problems, drug problems, a bad boyfriend problem…I thank God everyday that she lived through all that. And now she is a beautiful woman, married to a nice young man that she loves with all her heart. And we’re very close – which have made all the bad times just fade away. She is my heart.

  • Another Mushy Mama

    I still weep every time I take my daughter to college. She is happy. Healthy. Doing well. Dating a great guy.

    Why do I weep? Because I know I will miss her. The day after she’s back at school, I usually vacuum her room and say a prayer over her left-behind books and belongings. And I thank God for her. And for where God is leaving her.

    And yeah. I cry.

    Because… she will always be in my heart.