They’ve been called “necessary losses”--- those periodic reenactments of childbirth, when the umbilical cord connecting you to a no-longer-viable person, place, thing, situation, or process is severed to permit growth. Watching your only child recede in the rearview mirror after you’ve deposited her at college the first time, I daresay, qualifies.
“I can’t imagine losing my kids to college all at once like that,” says Carol, a friend whose son matriculated at Anna’s school two years ahead of her daughter. It’s probably true that, just as mothers bear virtually all the grief of their kids entering the world, they endure the lion’s share of the anguish when they depart the nest. While Marsha held up better than I expected, mainlining Skinny Pop rather than opiates, several of Anna’s classmates’ moms were keening so much after their kids went away that we thought the nearby Perry Nuclear Power Plant warning sirens had sounded.
Not that I couldn’t have used an epidural myself the first week Anna was away. The freneticism of the past year--- college visits, applications, orientation; the plethora of senior activities; a summer filled with grad parties, good wishes, dorm shopping, and anticipation--- only made the emptiness I now felt more intense. Instead of echoing Anna’s presence, my heart now rang with the lack of it. I hadn’t experienced such a vacuum since my mother passed away, fifteen years earlier.
For a while Marsha and I tried to hoodwink ourselves into believing Anna was gone only temporarily, as she had been during a couple of overseas trips in high school. But the succor soon faded as we realized this wasn’t a one-shot deal to the Galapagos or Europe. The hiatus to Parents Weekend would be followed by another to midterm, then Thanksgiving, Christmas, and so on, till summer. She simply wouldn’t be around that much anymore.
Thankfully, the transition on Anna’s end was smooth--- joining groups, working as a barista, doing well academically, adjusting to life in a cubbyhole with a roommate (none more noteworthy than the last, as not long ago she’d wanted us to host a male exchange student so she wouldn’t have to share her hair dryer). But even our pride at her independence was conflicted at first, being yet more proof that Ma and Pa down on the farm were less essential to her.
The whole process reminded us how much necessary losses can be like death. They involve rebirth (hopefully) for the departed and grieving for the ones left behind. And no matter how much you see them coming and try to prepare for them, their reality always surpasses what you were expecting, partly because of what might be termed the Duchamp effect.
Marcel Duchamp’s painting Nude descending a Staircase II, in which successive stages of a figure’s progress are rendered simultaneously, is the best depiction I know of the state of mind following separation, when the missing Other persists in our thoughts and daily affairs as though still actually present--- a persistent involuntary awareness akin to the tactility of people in dreams. In the days and weeks following Anna’s departure, we were repeatedly brought up short by this phenomenon.
Not hearing her in the house and wondering, for a moment, why she hadn’t told us she was going out. Being halfway out of our seat with a PC problem before realizing our tech support was now one-hundred-fifty miles away. Puzzling for a second over why the kitchen counter wasn’t groaning with its usual assortment of homemade cookies and brownies. No dog ever chased its tail more than Anna’s shadow did us for a while.
Fortunately, to our surprise, our Human Verizon Plan agreed to unlimited texting, with no time strictures. And, as the present started taking precedence, the unthinkable happened: Good misses began accompanying bad ones. No more wallpaper scorched by blowback over our disclosing her SAT score to another parent. No more being jolted awake by her inability to lower a toilet seat or close a cupboard door without sounding like the percussion section of a symphony orchestra. No more needing to reserve the CR-V a week in advance to go grocery shopping, as though it were a rental car. As with other necessary losses, the Duchamp effect began to recede, becoming one itself.
At least till Parents Weekend.