How to Take Your Teenager to College Part Two: A Mother’s Perspective
by Stacey Noem
As Joshua mentioned in our last post, he has been trying to prepare himself mentally and emotionally for taking Oscar to college for the better part of this last year.
As a good husband, part of his trying to prepare himself involved trying to prepare me as well. Each time a “last” moment—last day of high school, last dinner at the table, last night laying around on the couch watching Netflix, last Mass together—came up, he would note it and look at me. It was a look I would call “inviting acknowledgment of emotional trauma.”
While I was grateful for his care and intentionality, for me it just did not land. Emotionally, I felt calm and comfortable with this next step for Oscar. It is the natural progression of things and he is ready.
Now, I figured there might come a moment that would be particularly touching or tender as the weekend to drop him off at college unfolded. I did not think myself immune to it. But for the most part, my internal emotional barometer actually was holding pretty steady.
That is until we got the news.
Oscar had decided in the spring that he was going to try out for the marching band at his new university. This was a great idea as he really enjoyed music, and the band at his new school is an incredible collection of spirited folks who form a really cohesive group. Joining the band would be a great way for him to jump-start his college career with some built-in community, and I think that was a significant part of his motivation.
The one challenge would be that Oscar is a drummer and the drum line is pretty much the most competitive section of the band to make. But he was committed. He practiced all summer. When move-in came, from Wednesday to Saturday he balanced all the work of getting set up in his dorm, meeting his roommate, and orientation obligations with band camp and auditions. By Saturday night he was feeling pretty optimistic.
Then, Sunday morning, I got a text. Josh had gone to pick Oscar up at his dorm to go to the freshman orientation Mass with us. That is when he found out and texted me, “He didn’t make it.” They had posted the drum line list and Oscar’s name was not on it.
I was sitting with our younger two children eating some breakfast when I saw the text. Both of them suddenly looked up at me and said, “What? What happened?” Apparently, when I read the text I had involuntarily jumped and exclaimed. The news—and the magnitude of implication that came with it—hit me so viscerally, I had actually physically reacted.
In that one line of text, I felt all of the hopes, all of the optimism, all of the promise that Oscar had felt for his college experience get dashed against the rocks. And orientation wasn’t even over yet—we were headed to opening Mass in half an hour! He had seen band as a community that could help give him some of the focus and excitement he needed to overcome nerves and doubts and concerns, not just for these awkward opening days and weeks, but for the unknown years of his near future. That had all been ripped away from him.
And I knew it—the full depth of it. And I felt it. And I could do nothing about it.
The way I would describe the feeling was like sickness, numbness, and pain all at once. I had been in the middle of eating breakfast but my appetite not only immediately disappeared, I thought I might actually throw up. I felt dazed like when we had gone up Pike’s Peak and I got elevation sickness and really couldn’t focus on anything. To try to convey what it was like, I keep saying to friends that it was the first time I really ever identified with Our Lady of Sorrows. Joshua and I have had sad moments in our lives as parents. But until this moment I would never say that I felt as though my heart had been stabbed with a sword.
To be clear: all of this wasn’t about Oscar not getting something he wanted — like in some kind of consumer sense of desire. It wasn’t that I wanted to give him this thing that he couldn’t have. That wasn’t it at all. Rather, it was this watching. Watching my dear boy—my precious child—experience suffering and know that I can do nothing but stand by and witness it happen. I could not do anything for him. I could not alleviate this pain. I could not take it for myself. I could not spare him. This was just one part of life that was going to knock him down.
All I wanted in that moment was to get to Oscar as soon as I could.
When I saw him several minutes later, he just walked up to me and gave me a long hug. We started walking across campus together arms around each other’s waists and we talked. He told me about his disappointment and his (new) concerns about transitioning into college and trying to find community for himself. I listened. I encouraged. I died inside. I held him a little tighter.
Then we got to Mass.
It may have been one of the most cathartic Masses I have ever experienced. There is just something exactly right about coming broken before God, bringing our suffering to be united with His in the sacrifice of the Mass—“O, God you search me and you know me.” Jesus transformed, and continues to transform, all that seems like death—“Where O death is your sting?” Truly for us, by the time Mass ended we felt differently, I could tell. Not better—the pain was still fresh and tender inside. But maybe a pinch duller. And I would name the dulling agent as hope.
Hope, after all, is the confident expectation of God’s faithfulness. God is always faithful and our time praying at Mass reminded us of that. Not explicitly—hope wasn’t all over the readings that day—but implicitly. Hope was in the music that was beautifully, prayerfully sung. Hope was in the lyrics that spoke to the nature of longing, love, and sacrifice met with new life. Hope was in the people gathered, other mothers and fathers and children saying good-bye to one another and tentatively opening their arms to the path ahead. Hope was in the message of redemptive suffering that permeates every part of the liturgy… and every part of motherhood.