The Lost Supper
I always knew this day would come. From the moment my son was born, at 4:38 am on September 9, 1998, there lurked in the back of my mind—the way back—the knowledge that there would come a day when he would no longer be my little boy. But knowing it and feeling it are two very different things, and oooh! how it hurts to say goodbye to your baby!
My son Joe is a drummer. He’s been shaking the walls of my house since he was five years old, and he played the snare drum in his high school marching band. His decision to attend Towson University in Maryland was based in part on his eagerness to join the marching band there. In August, we learned that the band members would have to report to campus a full week before the other 10,000 students, cutting short our yearly family vacation to the Jersey shore by two days. Fine. Well, not fine, but do-able. My plan was to come home from the beach Thursday night, do a quick load of laundry for Joe, and leave for Towson with the rest of his pre-packed stuff by 10:00 Friday morning. That would give us plenty of time to drive down, move Joe in to his room (where I could show him how to make hospital corners and introduce him to the black magic involved in folding fitted sheets), and have a nice sit-down dinner before saying our solemn goodbyes and seeing him proudly off to his 6:00 practice. (My husband Bill would be with us this whole time, of course, doing all of the driving and most of the heavy lifting. But this story is about me and Joe, and Bill’s participation in it is mostly parenthetical.)
Here’s how it actually went down.
Things went as planned until Friday morning when we neared the southern end of the New Jersey Turnpike, and traffic began to slow. There was construction on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Within a few minutes, slow traffic had become a bona fide nightmare. In the back seat, Joe, who had been uncharacteristically attentive and even a little talkative, put on his headphones. Once, when Joe was a toddler and in the car seat, someone in heavy traffic had illegally cut in front of my husband. “Idiot!” Bill had yelled. Joe, wanting to imitate Daddy’s road-rage, piped up from the back seat with the worst insult he could think of: “You . . . you . . . you don’t even know what letter comes after C!” The traffic crawled on and on. We were nearing the toll plaza on the far side of the bridge, but the jam clearly continued beyond that. I had the EZPass in my left hand, raised to the windshield; Bill rarely used it and it was not attached to the glass. We were literally halted under the toll plaza, and I couldn’t tell if the “EZPass Paid” sign was meant for us or for the car ahead of us. The muscles in my arm began to ache. When he was six, Joe developed an obsession for anatomy. We were reading one of his body books at bedtime, and on the “muscle” page, an arrow pointing to the buttocks of the figure identified the gluteus maximus as the largest muscle in the human body. “No, Mommy,” said Joe with a smile. “It’s the BOOTIE-us maximus!” “Good job, Joe!” I laughed. “You made your first joke!” Our car finally got to move, but now all sixteen lanes of traffic from the toll plaza had to merge down to . . . how many? seven? one? three? lanes. Some cars had their left blinkers on, some their right. No one knew where they were going or what they were doing, but everyone was doing it at a blindingly dangerous and tense lack of speed. There were a good number of eighteen-wheel tractor-trailers in the mix, as well as one or two of those tiny two-seater death-mobiles that look like they just popped out of a Pez dispenser. All in all, it took us about an hour and a half to travel a length of highway that should have taken us about 15 minutes, and in that time I watched my sit-down dinner with my boy seep out of the tailpipes of our Jeep Grand Cherokee.
When we finally reached Joe’s room (after some clenched words about directions and circling the campus at least twice), it was well past 3:00. Joe’s room is on the 7th floor in one of four “towers.” This room is considered part of a “suite” because there is a bathroom joining it to the room next door. The first thing I noticed about my son’s living space was that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. I had not thought to pack toilet paper; I never had to take my own toilet paper to college; I had sent my kid to college without toilet paper! Bill was on his way out to look for the college store—(“so you can make his bed or whatever”)—and I asked him desperately to look for some toilet paper. Before he returned, I also realized that I had sent my kid to college without enough hangers, and without a bowl or spoon for cereal. I felt like a terrible mother. All three of us were overtired and uptight.
At 4:45 Joe pointed out that he really needed to eat something before a three-hour practice, and that he had to be there by quarter to six. We drove to a McDonald’s off campus and ate in the car.
At 5:35, we took the elevator down to the lobby for the last time. Before going outside, I stepped over to the front desk, where I could see Joe’s RA sitting. I caught his eye. “You take care of my boy.” I followed my husband and Joe, thinking of the empty hallway on the 7th floor, the lonely room. Outside, the sun was setting, and its level rays shone in my eyes as I faced my son. His silhouette was clearly outlined, but his features were indistinct, a tabula rasa. Another girl from the band, also on her way to practice, greeted him, but halted her approach as she realized that we were saying our goodbyes. Bill hugged him first, a quick, firm, manly hug. Then it was my turn. I hugged him close and told him that I loved him. When I stepped away, I could see that Joe’s face was contorted, and he was crying. And then my son and I were clinging to each other for dear life, tears flowing, but Bill was quoting some poet and saying that “all farewells should be sudden” and someone was tugging at my arm and the sun was in my eyes and the car was moving and he was gone.
I just returned from a weekend at Towson. I went to see Joe perform at Towson’s first home football game. I never saw his face during the game, but over breakfast this morning, I scanned his face, eyes, like a secret spy camera, for signs of change. He appeared neither miserable nor ecstatic. He seemed the same. But I’m not fooled. His life as “my boy” is over, and his own life has begun.