I stand next to my 17-year-old son, staring at a computer screen. "Click here for your admission decision," the tiny blue words say.
Flash of white as the message comes onto the screen.
"We are sorry to inform you . . ."
The news that his application to a college has been rejected sinks in uncomfortably, like IV fluid flowing into my veins.
"Oh, well," I say. "You didn't really want to go there anyway."
My son shrugs nonchalantly. He disappears up the stairs before I can say another word. His 11-year-old sister interrupts my thoughts, reminding me that we have to leave for Hebrew school. His 14-year-old brother resumes twirling a football and watching ESPN. The Thursday afternoon goes on as usual, except for the huge lump lodged in my throat.
My usual mantra plays in my head: This is not a real problem. I have seen friends suffer from horrible illnesses, have had family members die tragically, and am fully aware of the pain and sorrow that exist all over the world. But for a moment, or a few hours, I let myself wallow in misery.
My melancholy has little to do with my son not being accepted by a particular school. He received an acceptance letter from one college in October, and took in stride his deferral from another in December. Word from seven more colleges is due by the end of March, and I know that he'll wind up getting a good education somewhere. As thousands of fragments of my son's childhood flash before me, however, I realize that my central position in his life is shifting to the background.
With each memory, my connection to my firstborn seems more solid, yet unavoidably fleeting. I recall his newborn, bird-like eyes scanning the hospital recovery room; his cheerful babbling as he splashed in the bathtub; his awkward toddler gait; his embarrassed, freckled face underneath a paper crown as his kindergarten class sang happy birthday; his little body dressed as Thomas Edison in my husband's spacious sports jacket for the third-grade "wax museum." Then came fifth-grade graduation, his bar mitzvah, eighth-grade graduation, his body shooting upward, facial hair, a deeper voice, changing friendships, him driving away as I watched from the window, late-night studying, too little sleep, video games, varsity tennis, meals at Chipotle Mexican Grill with friends.
Protecting my son from life's pain was easy when he was a baby. It became more difficult as he grew. I recall dropping him off at school the day the eighth-grade baseball team was posted. My phone buzzed as I sat at a red light on the way home. "didn't make it," said the text. My heart shattered into a million pieces.
In the same way, when I see the words, "We are sorry to inform you" on the computer screen, I want to scream, "HOW CAN YOU NOT WANT MY SON?"
While now I will play a lesser role in the outcomes of my son's future, I can show that I trust him to make the most of the opportunities he's offered. He's stepping out into the world. I was able to guide him with his applications and essays, but ultimately, I have no say about where he'll get accepted. For a parent, I guess that's what college is all about: letting go.
Reader Karin Greenberg lives in Dix Hills.