I knew this day would come. We spent many long nights helping Conner perfect his college essay and rejoiced with him when his acceptance letter arrived in the mail.
He was holding it in his hand, smiling smugly as we arrived home from work. We dreamed about our son going to college, as all parent’s do, yet only four years ago, which could’ve been a life-time ago, we remembered hearing our son’s Oncologist saying Conner was free to leave the hospital- he was cancer free or now called no evidence of disease (NED). After almost nine months of chemotherapy and a bone allograph to rebuild his tumor ravaged shoulder, Conner was at liberty to start his “new normal life.” That life contained the promise of college preparation and a happy future.
Yet, letting go and getting to that point wouldn’t be easy. My husband and I spent the next four years helping our son come out of his shell and reclaim the year that cancer had taken. Chemo brain made his freshman year difficult and Conner struggled in school. We visited the nutritionist several times over the first two years to rebuild his depleted weight as his body tried to recover from the toll the disease had taken. He was trying to gain growth. I also learned that nagging and helicopter- parenting did not help his appetite
I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen when I wasn’t there when our son went away to college? Fortunately for all of us, Conner’s weight did improve and so did his eating habits. As Conner prepared to leave home, I promised myself that he would remember all the good habits we taught him. It took a visit to Seattle Children’s Hospital and assurance from our nurse practitioner that our son was just as healthy as any other student.
Our Thule rack was packed on top of our SUV with luggage, and the back of the car with blankets, milk crates, snacks and clothing for his trip to Eastern Washington. The mountains and rolling hills were familiar, soothing, and comforting as we started our journey. I didn’t feel as if anything out of the ordinary were happening as the three of us made happy conversation, listened to the radio, and settled in for the ride. I reflected upon the last week of how we had spent cramming in as many family outings and dinners as we could to create as many memories like a well to draw water from in a drought.
If I had any reservation about WSU and leaving my son there, it quickly evaporated the next day. As we pulled into the main entrance to the freshman dorms, smiling happy volunteers boasting cheerful red and white WSU t-shirts called to us from every corner, welcoming us and waving. They asked if we knew where we were going, informed us where to park our cars and told us how to get to the dorms.
I was grateful for those times when I needed to move the car or get supplies and even more so for the big sunglasses I was wearing that hid my tears. I truly wanted to control them but as my mother used to say they are coming “Come hell or high water.” I noticed one of the other moms hanging around a bit more than usual and asked her if leaving her son was hard for her as well. She said. “Oh yeah, I’ve been crying for a month.” I didn’t feel quite so badly after that.
It wasn’t long before we had run out of things to do. We had taken Conner to lunch, the book store for the obligatory t-shirt run, assisted him in unpacking nearly everything and took a bunch of pictures.
Paul gently reached for my elbow and whispered “It’s time to say goodbye, he needs to go and spend time with his new friends. It’s the best thing.”
Looking back two years later, as our children leave the nest, I realize that we are in the midst of the launching stage (McGoldrick, 2011). I couldn’t help but ask myself several times “now what?” For years, I stayed home and raised our children and then was consumed with our son’s cancer caregiving.
After much soul-searching, I decided to publish a book about Conner’s cancer journey so that others might not feel so alone in their experience. The book profits help charities. To be more effective in helping families, I returned to graduate school in Marriage and Family Therapy. Publishing and marketing a new book, plus graduate school studies, have taken the focus off my empty nest sadness. Plus, I’m setting a good example for my children. Life continues after 50. I’m excited for this next chapter.