Visiting Japan has ranked at the top of my older son’s wish list for years. Immediately after his first day of Japanese class in grade school, he was hooked on both the language and the culture. By the time he started college, he was determined to study abroad. His courses during his freshman and sophomore years had prepared him for a trip that could profoundly change his life, yet I wasn’t ready for him to leave.
The morning of his flight, after my son showed his passport to the agent at the ticket counter and checked his bags, we wandered over to the waiting area near the security checkpoint. As we walked, my chest tightened while my eyes ignored the warning signals from my brain screaming: Do. Not. Cry! I desperately tried to hold back my tears by blinking in double time and forcing myself to think about anything other than my son boarding a plane in two short hours and living more than 6,000 miles away. This was the son who never wanted to go to summer camp, yet was going to fly halfway around the world.
I knew that falling apart would send the wrong message—I was thrilled for the opportunity and adventure lying before him—but after realizing I wouldn’t see him for 120 days (yes, I counted), my emotions spilled out like the contents of my overstuffed purse as I searched for a tissue.
“Let’s take a selfie,” I said, as we reached the white plastic chairs near security and I wiped my eyes with what I found at the bottom of my bag: a crumpled receipt.
“Mom, let’s wait until you’re not crying, he said.” I didn’t have to look in a mirror to confirm that my nose was red and my mascara had failed to live up to its waterproof promise.
“That could be weeks,” I said. “You’ll miss your flight.” We both laughed and I avoided looking into my son’s eyes, a guaranteed trigger for more tears.
After I snapped a dozen pictures of the two of us—it took a few tries before I stopped inadvertently cutting off half of my son’s face—he stood up, slipped his backpack over his shoulders and posed for a few more photos. Peering through the camera on my phone, I saw my firstborn who was no longer a teenager, yet not quite a man, looking eager to start a new chapter in his life.
We hugged, and as I watched him pass through security, I felt a mix of emotions ranging from sadness to anticipation, from pride to stomach-turning anxiety. For a few seconds, I was back at his first day of kindergarten filled with tears (mine, not his), except at the end of the day, my son would return to his host family’s home, not mine.
There was no doubt my son’s semester abroad was going to be exciting for him and challenging for me. Instead of seeing him in person—I was used to visiting him at his college only an hour away—I was going to have to rely on Skype, email, and occasional phone calls to stay in touch.
As much as I wanted to call my son every day week, I knew he needed space to explore, make friends, and immerse himself in the international program. Unlike my friends and family with daughters in college who call them in between classes or late at night, or both, my son has always been a guy of few words and even fewer texts and phone calls. I expected much of the same while he was out of the country.
As he adjusted to his new life away from home and created a new normal, I knew I had to do the same. I established a daily routine designed to keep me occupied and to avoid driving my significant other insane with my unnecessary concerns about my son’s well being. Between running two businesses, writing, volunteering, and making plans with friends who for years I had promised to meet for lunch or dinner, I stayed busy.
A month before my son came home, my younger son texted me a few pictures his brother had sent him through Snapchat. There were images of packed city streets, a park filled with families, and a gorgeous waterfall. Then I saw a picture of my son with two friends. I hardly recognized him with a dark moustache and black glasses, neither of which he had before he left. I looked closely at the photo and felt familiar tears prepared to fall, although this time I wasn’t sad; I was overjoyed and relieved. My son looked relaxed, confident, and, best of all, happy.
My international traveler came back with interesting stories, new friends, and a determination to simplify and streamline his possessions, a practice he picked up from his host family who live in a comfortable, yet small apartment. As I listened to him describe his experiences, I noticed he was more confident and engaging. As difficult, emotional, and enlightening as his four months away had been for me, I understood that for my son to continue to thrive, I had to pull back. It was time for me to let go.
My son is back at school for his senior year, and so far I’ve fought my old habits. I pause before I send a text and I rarely call him. Most of the time, he is the one who initiates contact. While I would like to visit him every few weeks, I have only seen him once since I helped him move into a house.
While he was out of the country, I imagined my son would further his independence, improve his ability to adapt to new situations, and develop into his own person.
I never dreamed I would learn the same lessons.
Photo: Getty Images