Pack & Hold

Pack & Hold is the registered trademark of Bed, Bath & Beyond’s brilliantly simple “move-in solution” wherein kids leaving home for college can order everything they need (and many things they didn’t even know they needed) from their local BB&B store, and pick it up at the store nearest their campus. It’s also one way to describe so much of what I’ve done with and for Sophie over the years.

When Sophie was a baby, I didn’t want anyone else to hold her. I was so greedy with her, all I ever wanted to do was hold her myself. Nineteen years ago, when I found out I was pregnant with her–my third child–my first goal was just to hold on to the pregnancy for the full nine months. Howie felt our family was complete with the two sons we had, while I begged both Howie and the larger, cosmic powers-that-be for one more. My mantra during that pregnancy was,

“Just get me to June”, knowing that her conception was a fluke of biology (the details are not important) and I was not likely to conceive again if I lost her. In June when I delivered Sophie, I was so grateful for my good fortune at having been allowed not only a third, healthy child but also a daughter, I wanted to hold on to her forever.

When she was late in learning to walk, I asked my own mother,

“Why isn’t she walking yet?” to which my mom replied,

“How can she? You won’t put her down.”

Letting go has never been easy for me. I get very attached to all kinds of things: people, situations, even favorite articles of clothing. Buddhists and/or psychoanalysts would have a field day with me and my attachments. Being the self-diagnosed fear-and-grasping type, I held onto my children as tightly as I could while they were growing up, because A) I’m not that spiritually evolved and B) I consider them among the most precious gifts I have ever received.

Being a mother is supposedly a selfless endeavor, but honestly, we get many needs met through raising our children. We give birth to our own delightful companionship in the form of our children and to delicious physical bodies that for years are ours to have and to hold. It’s a powerful experience to feel needed as intimately and uniquely as we mothers are needed by our children. This bond is essential and one-of-a-kind. And I’ve always considered it a cruel trick of nature that these creatures, once packed tightly inside our very bodies, depend on us to first attach to them on the deepest level then to pack them up and ship them out.

Raising children requires constant packing and unpacking, literally and figuratively. We pack diaper bags, then backpacks and lunches. We pack them for family vacations, sleepovers and sleep-away camps. We help them pack when they get old enough to venture farther from home, say for study-abroad programs or other, life-enriching experiences we’re happy for them to have. And one, dreaded day, we find ourselves in Bed Bath & Beyond, shopping for things to pack them off to college and outfit them for their most one-way flight so far; Twin XL sheets, towels, storage bins, laundry hampers…all in an attempt to help them establish a feeling of home-away-from-home. Now that mine are all grown and gone, I’m trying to unpack what having children–and particularly having them living in my house–has meant for me; beyond the obvious and beyond what I have been able to figure out thus far (in my previous 80+ posts).

Most recently, in the two weeks between Sophie’s return home from two months at summer camp and the start of her freshman year in Kansas, our unpacking and packing frenzy reached epic proportions. I had seen mothers in summers past shopping with college-bound kids, lists in hand, pushing carts through the aisles like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. I had even been one of these mothers, but both my sons chose to attend college close to home, so we didn’t need to utilize the Pack & Hold program. I joke that when we dropped our eldest off to school, I cried all the way home; all 10 minutes. I was proud that our boys made it to college (another story), I was able to see them almost as often as I wanted & I had Sophie keeping me company at home throughout those two moves.

This last, packing phase before launching my last chick filled me with a frightening dark dread, especially toward the end of the last week. The second-to-the-last night as I lay in my bed, I had a simulated panic attack and found it impossible to calm myself enough to fall asleep. Trouble sleeping, waves of nauseous anticipation, fear of letting go of life-as-we-know-it, all of these symptoms reminded me of the final days of pregnancy. It is in this final phase that the discomfort of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go. It just needs to be over. Every bit of it begins to hurt. And the baby is shifting uncomfortably in her readiness to get out.

The morning of our scheduled departure finally arrived. In a somber procession, we filed past each other as we packed the boxes and duffle bags into the back of the rented van. I packed a cooler with fruit and drinks as Sophie held the cat one last time. I heard her say,

“Goodbye house.”

I packed more Kleenex.

My psyche was on high alert. I noticed every familiar landmark as we left everything that has been and headed for everything that is to be.

And then, an odd surrendering began inside me–one I feared would never happen or if it happened I feared it might kill me–a final release had begun somewhere deep inside me. If I had to locate it, I’d say it happened somewhere between my stomach and chest, somewhere between images from our past and visions for our future, somewhere between Des Moines and Kansas City. Maybe a long-badgered resignation was taking place once every hope of avoiding this inevitable moment was, at last, extinguished.

And in my final act of the day-to-day mothering of this child, I rose up–like a Phoenix–from the ashes of my fearful, clutching, neediest self and became the mother Sophie needed me to be in this moment, there for the sole purpose of providing strength and support to my anxious but excited daughter. I finally relinquished my hold on her and became the most selfless version of myself; the one I’ve always tried/wanted/hoped to be.

And once I released her in this new way, something incredible happened inside me; I felt released, weightless, happy, even.

We got into Lawrence early in the evening, after the seven hour drive, and unloaded all Sophie’s belongings onto two, wobbly dollies. We hauled them up to her room, took her and her new roommate out for a quick hamburger and left the girls to unpack and begin their college experience together.

Then Howie and I headed out for a more leisurely dinner at a Thai restaurant I could picture Sophie hanging out at with her new college friends in the years to come. And I cried through the whole dinner. Our waiter seemed un-phased, remarking that his mother did the same thing when she took him to college. And in the early hours of the next morning, the barista at the Starbucks in our hotel reported that a whole host of mothers had been crying in their coffee these past few days.

Around nine the next morning, Howie and I picked Sophie up for breakfast before heading back home to begin our lives together as empty-nesters and to see what she had done to settle into her new room. Her clothes fit nicely into the plastic, stacking drawers we bought, the trendy, fabric bins were filled, one with brushes and one with snacks, pictures of family and friends were strung around the shelves over her bed that was neatly made up with her hip, new comforter. We commended her on her organizational abilities and her sense of style.

At breakfast, I centered myself in that new-found space I discovered at the very end of our journey to this place and announced to her,

“I’m not going to make this any harder on you than it needs to be.” to which she responded,

“For ONCE!”

And with that, our new order was established. I love her with all the ferocity I have ever felt for her and now that tremendous love is requiring me to let her go; not only for her sake, but also for mine.

There’s a certain, giddy pleasure–a lightness of being–to be found in surviving something you fully expected would kill you. I helped pack Sophie for college, held her as we tearfully hugged goodbye in the parking lot of her dorm, let her go, got back in the van and drove away leaving her standing there on the threshold of her new life and found that I was still breathing.

The first words out of my mouth to Howie, as we exited the parking lot and headed north towards home were,

“I’m glad that’s over.” Saying goodbye to my baby at college was the moment I’d dreaded, on some level, since she was born.

I can see why Bed Bath & Beyond doesn’t call their service Pack & Hold & Release…no one would buy it.


8 thoughts on “Pack & Hold

  1. Holy heartstrings Batman! This beautiful, evocative essay brought me right back to each time I left a child at college. You so eloquently capture the volleying between total grief, reluctant acceptance, and actual relief. You did it, girl, and I’m so proud of you. Thank you for sharing this journey. We really do need to get together and commiserate!

  2. I would love to get together, to commiserate or anything else! Let’s plan to walk somewhere on those sidewalks you were talking about in your most recent post; another brilliant extended observation of life-after-kids-leaving-the-nest! So happy to hear you are content in your hip, new digs! Sounds fabulous!

  3. Dear Gail, I love the way you describe the infinite love we mothers have at the birth & nurturing of our offspring. I know, as you do, that there is nothing in this world we treasue & cherish more than our children. And when they are adorable, delicious babies, we can’t bear the thought of sharing them. Now that Sophie has
    taken her giant step to independence & new adventures, you too will experience a new delight of being. I hope I am still here when the day comes, not too quickly for you, I’m sure, when you have the experience of the birth of your first grandchild. You will know then, the sheer, unadulterated, ecstatic, pure joy of life! And to Sophie I say, “Yasher Koach.” May you grow in strength, wisdom, experience and compassion for your parents who are missing you. Mazal tov!

  4. (more Kleenex, please!) Cousin Harriet; thank you for following me on this journey, and for being the wise voice advising and consoling me along the way! It’s been a special gift hearing your voice this past year. May we all grow in strength, wisdom, experience and compassion for each other. Thank you for generously contributing to my work, here!

  5. Gail – I thought I was doing ok – until I read this. You bring out every single emotion that I have felt along this journey. Just when I thought I had buried the tears – just for a little while – I found this – and I thought not only of Julia, but also of Sophie and Sarah and Veronica and Meredith. I miss them to pieces – every single one of them. This is very cathartic, Gail. Thank you for sharing. I would love to get together – and try not to cry – but to talk about the fun and joy they are experiencing! xoxo

  6. Does this mean you’re done blogging?? I was so excited to see a new post from you yesterday and then – surprise! – another one today! I enjoy your writing so much. And while I’ve had an empty nest, off and on, for a while now, the coming and going still leaves me an emotional wreck at times, especially saying goodbye to an 8 month old who grins from ear to ear when she sees me! Last night we put Vivi on a plane to Vietnam (!) for a year — and I’m not yet at the point of saying “I’m glad that’s over.” Let’s get together soon!

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