I’d handled most of that first week like a champion. The week after I dropped my oldest child off at college 350 miles away from home.
I walked by his empty bedroom and felt a twinge of panic as I stood in the doorway, but I held it together, vacuumed and dusted his mostly empty shelves, and continued on with my chores.
I visited the grocery store and managed only a passing glance at the macaroni and cheese boxes, the pizzarogies in the frozen case, the fish sticks and chicken nuggets he preferred to the “real” thing. These were items I no longer needed to stock up on. I calculated in my head how many days until he would next be home, questioning if the food could last that long. And upon realizing I would not be purchasing his favorite items this particular week, I experienced in that chilly supermarket aisle a certain sad nostalgia. But like a prize fighter I fought back the tears that threatened to flow.
What really got me though, what finally pummeled the brand image of strength and intention I had fabricated, was our first Shabbat dinner without him.
My son has always been a reluctant participant in our family’s Friday night ritual. Yet I was already dreading his impending absence from the meal—his belligerent mumbling of the prayers over the wine and the challah, his blatant eye rolling as my husband sings to me the lovely song of praise called “Aishet Chayil.”
The first chink in the proverbial armor I had donned occurred when I set out four placemats instead of the three we would need that evening. I chuckled nervously to myself and soldiered on. I bravely set out three bowls instead of four, one yarmulke instead of two.
Then my compact family took our seats at the table. My husband placed his hands upon our daughter’s head and recited the blessing over the children, as he has done every Friday night since the day she was born. May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. And I realized that on this night we would not be able to touch our son’s head and ask that God make him like Ephraim and Menasheh, bless him and guard him, shine upon him and give him peace.
I could not hold back the tears. For eighteen years, countless Friday nights, that prayer had connected us as a family. I had thought it sacred, inviolable and permanent. The reality of my son’s absence, his beginning a new and separate life away from us, was never more acutely apparent than at that moment.
I know his leaving is not a catastrophe. Yet it is a seismic shift, and I can’t pretend that things have not changed. In the weeks ahead I will seek to not only rebuild myself, but to rebuild our family’s traditions, and find a way to include the child who is many miles away, and yet in my heart and in my dreams, never closer.