“Damn bro. You weren’t playing. 😭”
That text to a friend was all I could get out as I sat on the rental car shuttle.
45 minutes prior, we’d dropped our oldest baby off 1,232 miles from home base. We said our goodbyes in a 112 degree afternoon, hugging and crying in a pasta restaurant parking lot.
And 10 minutes prior, I’d dropped Brooke off at the airport to check our bags.
It was really the first time I’d been alone for more than a couple minutes in 72 hours.
I was part-numb, part-drained, part-hopeful, part-confused, and mostly exhausted.
In context, close friends of ours have experienced awful, unthinkable, tragic situations with their kids.
So this isn’t a story comparing the privilege and possibilities of sending a kid to college to anything like that.
But shit, even though others gave me plenty of kind warnings, there’s no describing the feeling.
Many different times over many different days, it felt as if someone shoved a shop vac nozzle in the bottom of my lungs, and instantly (and without my permission) extracted all the air.
Leaving us gasping for oxygen, wondering if we’d be able to breathe again, and questioning if we’d ever recover.
So as I sat in silence, amidst a shuttle bus of strangers, I composed a text.
“Damn bro. You weren’t playing. 😭,” was all I could muster to a friend who’d walked this same road two weeks before we did.
After they stepped onto their own path, he had sent me this text, “I know it’s a necessary next step in their next chapter, but that dropping kids off at college bullshit ain’t easy. 😎”
I questioned his sunglass emoji at the time, but as he was responding to my text, Brooke sent me this…
It was a selfie of her in the terminal, holding up the letters Kamden wrote and then gave to us during our goodbyes.
Her pic was followed by, “Wearing sunglasses indoors 😭😭😭”
My friend’s cool sunglasses guy emoji made perfect sense now. And about then, his text came in responding to my cry for validation.
“Hope she’s getting settled in and that you all are doing OK. Can’t think of anything harder that I have had to do. I questioned everything I did for the last 18 years on that drive home and hoped I was right. 😎”
There it was again. The kindness, the going before, and the crying indoors emoji.
It’s such a surreal experience, one you have to go through to get.
But 18 years gets compressed into this fast-forwarded movie reel in your mind. Or maybe fast-rewinded. Or a terrible mix of both. Like an old VCR where you skip around trying to find the exact scene, but have trouble pinpointing where it was.
It’s impossible to summarize all those scenes here. Or even remember each one in detail. But the snapshots are crystal clear.
They started flooding in those few days in Phoenix.
There we were.
And there she was.
Standing on this growing chasm. One foot on the childhood side, full of what has been a loving, yet imperfect 18 years. And the other foot, firmly planted in the becoming and budding adult bedrock.
With hints and whispers of who she was already, yet full of uncertainty, fear, bravery, sadness, and adventure.
The night before we left, all seven of us sat in our room Sunday night (a rarity these days), watching home videos of her as a four-year-old.
That little girl in Memphis whose heart was bigger than her big, brown eyes that carried this “please see me” look in them.
I was struck by something in that moment, and the flood of memories that entered the following 72 hours.
For us, for our family, she had gotten to, and had to be, the first in everything.
She was the first one we brought home to our 1,600 square foot house in Columbia. Babies ourselves, we had a baby.
She was the first one who ripped our hearts from our chest and replaced them with a love that’s indescribable until you experience the transplant.
She was the first one we held a video camera and digital camera (pre-iPhone era) in front of for hours as she did all sorts of firsts like saying “momma”, rolling over, sleeping through the night, pulling herself up, and of course, the first steps.
She was the first one who crawled up into our bed when she was scared at night, and the first one who we got to crawl into hers to do the same.
She was the first reason we ever made big breakfasts on the weekends.
She was the first person we ever told we loved to the moon and back. A phrase she concluded her own letters to us that required the inside sunglasses.
She was the first who bravely stepped into six different schools by her 6th grade year as we lived in four different cities during that precious period of her life.
She was the first one who helped us through those moves, as we navigated career, finances, and identities. She never cared about those things, she just cared to be with us.
She was the first who had to be the recipient of our gotta-figure-out-how-to-do-this parenting practice. Fumbling our way through not knowing what the hell to do, what was most important, or the times we tried to “demand obedience” as if she were a puppy, not a person.
She was the first to be on the receiving end of our sorries for the times and ways we were rigid and used religion and other well-intended but harmful ways to attempt to control our own insecurities and fears.
She was the first to show us how to “shine like a star and work your heart out” as she rescued a baby tortoise, cared for it back to health, released it, then wrote a book about the experience (not to mention went on TV and a classroom tour to talk about it).
She was the first to get bullied on social media, first to be told she wasn’t enough by some pre-teenage boy, and the first to find out precisely when she wasn’t invited places where her friends were.
She was the first to introduce us to cross country. A sport that spanned six years and lots of miles through the woods trying to catch a glimpse of her. A sport that taught her about adversity, community, and resilience.
A sport that forced her to face some unfair circumstances and some dark days. Yet she kept going anyway.
She was the first to have us be all over the map (mainly me, her mom has been clear on the negative impact on devices from the jump) on screen time, social media rules, where her phone is at bedtime, and what limits we impose on the most addictive piece of technology in world history.
She was the first to drink alcohol, kiss a boy, tell us a lie, turn off her Life 360 location, and other stuff that I thought was the end of the world at the time.
And now I’m grateful for the lessons and the times she forgave me for my angry overreactions.
She was the first to have her heart broken. To put it on the line, in all its vulnerability and beauty, and have it get mangled. It was heartbreaking to walk those roads with her, talk until all hours of the morning, and not be able to take the pain away.
And yet, she emerged in strength anyway.
She was the first to have to handle the aftermath of my own identity deconstruction and dark nights of the soul. And God knows, there were many dark nights.
She was left to pick up some of my pieces, to step into adult behavior sooner than she wanted, and care for her mom and four siblings.
She never asked for that shitty season, yet she stepped into it anyway.
She was the first to navigate a new pandemic world that seemed to go from safe and predictable to upside down and uncertain in the matter of moments.
Unplugged from literally everything normal to a life of sheltering in place was a devastating thing for a high school kid to endure. No school, no sports, no friendships, no stability.
She was the first to say the pandemic weighed heavy on her soul and brought up brutal, depressive byproducts of the isolation.
She was the first to put on the tassels, don the cap and gown, and walk across the stage. Signaling a change in seasons.
One we knew would arrive at some point, but one we’d never navigated before.
And now, she’s the first to leave home.
She was the first to have to tell the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins goodbye.
She was the first to pack up her room and decide what stays and what goes.
She was the first to leave the pet that helped her through the pandemic.
She was the first to tell her four siblings it would be OK and that she’d see them soon, when they fell apart the morning she left.
She was the first to question if she was doing it right. If she made the right decision. If she made a mistake going so far away.
She was the first to walk into an empty dorm room, lump in her throat, and tears in her eyes.
She was the first to stand in an arena full of new faces, officially starting this new chapter.
She was the first to remind her parents that she’d see us soon when our lungs felt like they wouldn’t fill up with oxygen again as we said goodbye in that pasta parking lot.
She was the first to help us know we could fly home. And leave her there.
There to find herself. There to make new friends. There to build her life. There to begin walking her adult road.
There to tell a new story.
She was the first to teach us what bravery means.
She was the first to teach us about what it looks like to be in a relationship with a child who shares our last name.
It’s the greatest gift we’ve ever received.
For all the hard, scary, lonely ways she had to go first, I’m really sorry.
She’s always had to go first. She didn’t have a choice.
And yet, in the middle of it, there have been more brave, beautiful, meaningful firsts that far outweigh the troubling ones.
She was the first here.
She was the first for 18 years.
And now, she’s the first to fly.
And even when her wings feel unsteady and unready, she was born for this.
And we’ll all get to learn as she goes first.