This is the little boy we took to college two weeks ago.

See, he’s all packed up.

Our baby. In the big city of Chicago. Fourteen hours away by car. Where he knew no one.

During our road trip up there, I rediscovered that people handle stressful situations very differently. Very surprisingly, even when they’ve been married to each other more than thirty-one years.

My husband handled the stress of taking his youngest to Chicago like our golden retriever puppy would handle it if I were married to her. He hid Sam’s shoe behind the shower curtain in the hotel bathroom. He took pictures of Sam and started to post them without permission. He Snapchatted Sam weird photos while we were standing three feet from each other. He told Sam dumb dad jokes that Sam has heard at least 31 times before. He touched Sam a lot and stood too close to him…until Sam said, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME MAD?”

We went out to lunch somewhere in Indiana and Todd ordered a sandwich with about 12 things on it. “What’s all that on your sandwich?” Sam asked.

“Mayonnaise,” said Todd.

I don’t understand Todd sometimes.

I also don’t understand myself.

In the days leading up to our departure, while we were loading up suitcases and I was trying to convince Sam that no, one bath towel was not enough, and he needed to take at least a comb OR a brush (at which he said, “Silly mommy, don’t you know that’s what fingers are for”) I started having strange obsessions. Like why hadn’t I forced the boy to make his bed every day? And why was Sam so resistant to using capital letters and proper punctuation? Didn’t they teach that in high school anymore? And why wouldn’t he let me buy him new underwear? Just what is so bad about having too much underwear?

As we got closer and closer to Chicago, my brain made lists of things I wanted so badly to tell him that I had to press my mouth into my fist so that the words wouldn’t escape, revealing me as Lunatic Mom. Things like: CAPITALIZE PROPER NOUNS. Don’t skip classes. Google where bad parts of Chicago are and don’t go there. Take your vitamins. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Wear a coat. Eat vegetables.

Ridiculous, I know. He knows all that stuff. It’s just where my brain went.

Sam had his own reaction to the stress of being taken to college by two crazy people.

He mumbled answers to all our questions and when we both said, “Huh?” he responded with such a booming voice that it shook the ears of the cattle we passed standing in a certain field in Indiana.

When Siri helped us find a Walmart on the way because we thought of more plastic items Sam MUST have and Todd said, “I wonder why she’s taking us around the back side of the building?” he answered, “Probably because she assumes you’re smart enough to look up and see where Walmart is right in front of you.”

I guess the dad jokes were getting to him.

I wasn’t off bounds either. “Look, I’m Mom!” he said, taking my phone out of my purse and waving it around. “Laa dee dah. I care nothing about battery life so I put my phone in my purse WITHOUT TURNING IT OFF! Mom, really! What are you going to do without me around to remind you?”

Maybe Sam’s brain had made a list of his own.

We finally got there and got him moved in, without much angst on anybody’s side. We went out to lunch and to Target for more stuff and then back to his room where we discovered that the light bulbs we’d bought for his new lamp were outlawed by the university because of their fire starting potential. “There’s an Ace Hardware at the bottom of that big building a block away,” I said. “Let’s go there and then we’ll get out of your hair.”

So we went. We found the right bulbs and then stood in the slowest line known to man in the history of Ace Hardware stores. Eventually Sam and I got bored and both walked around browsing through the wide assortment of nuts and bolts and extension cords. Todd had finally gotten to the cashier when I looked over and saw a sight that broke me.

Sam was standing in the corner, his big, 6’4″ self, wiping at his eyes.

My heart! Yanked out of my body! Stomped on and thrown into a Chicago city street where a bus rode right over it.

“I have no privacy anymore,” Sam said. “Can we go to the car before you leave and sit a few minutes?”

We did. We sat in the parking garage and all the while I was praying that God would help me hold it together ’til we got out of his sight– since not even Ace Hardware had enough nuts and bolts to do the job.  I put on my Cheerleader Positive Mom suit and so did his daddy, and after a few minutes, he said he was ready. We could go now. He was fine.

We gave him a hug and a kiss and tried to act like it was no big deal. Like he was just going off on a weekend away with the youth group. “Text us when you feel like it!” I called.

Then we turned left, away from his residence hall, into Chicago traffic.

“I need to find a liquor store,” said his daddy.

“Right there with you,” I said.

Then suddenly out of nowhere there was a unmanned toll booth in front of us. What kind of city puts up a toll booth with no warning? (There probably was a warning, but our hearts and brains were unfortunately mangled on the streets back in the South Loop.) We pulled off the road and pulled up our floor mats to find old candy wrappers and discarded straw wrappings. No cash.

We drove through.

As we drove silently out of Chicago, our hearts beating at us, the suburbs blurring by, I thought of something my daughter had said a few weeks earlier- just a week after she’d birthed Josiah, our first grandchild. As I was holding my precious sleeping grandson, she was hanging a photograph of him on their living room wall.

“Mom, do you think it’s okay for me to put pictures of Josiah up all over the house?”

“Of course I do, Honey. It’s your house. What’s wrong with putting pictures up?”

Sarah looked at me with big eyes and hesitated, the way she used to when she was little and had big feelings to reveal. “But,” she said, biting her lip with a slight smile that said ‘Don’t think I’m ridiculous,’  “I mean, what if he dies?”

Oh honey. Welcome to the pain of parenthood. The terrifying vulnerability of loving some one so much that it actually hurts.

“Maybe it’s the hormones,” she said, “but now I look at everyone and I can hardly stand it. We’re all somebody’s baby.”

That’s right. Love is powerful. Awe-ful.

Sometimes it’s awful.  That’s the secret nobody really talks about.

I thought of all the love I have for Sam, for Ben, for Sarah and how it’s made me cry over the years for joy and pride and anger and fear and delight and frustration and longing. But all those feelings are all wrapped up together, and I’m so thankful for the tangled mess love is. I thank God for it today, this powerful LOVE. It’s worth the painful vulnerability. It’s worth having your heart mangled.

Sam is doing great, just so you know. He rides the L (not the subway- don’t call it a subway) to cool little coffee shops where he studies, just to get out of his room, even though his roommates are great. He texts us and tells us about how interesting his classes are and how he’s cooking his own meals and meeting new people.  “That’s wonderful!” I say, and resist the temptation to ask if he’s wearing a jacket and taking his vitamins. “I’m trying to be better about turning off my phone, by the way,” I said to him recently.

“Good job, Mama,” he said.

I think we’re going to be okay.


*Just in case you’re wondering, I had Sam and Sarah read this and approve it before sharing. 🙂