She did submit her application, and she was accepted. She read more about it and became increasingly interested even as she received acceptances from other schools, closer to home, schools she’d visited.
Enticed by the idea of wrapping up our younger child’s senior year with a family road trip, my husband and I promised her a cross-country drive over April vacation. She could tour the large midwestern university we knew almost nothing about. She could explore the city that surrounded the campus. She could get a sense of just how far it was from home, and still have a couple of weeks before the deadline to make her decision.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. By the time April vacation week came along, we were several weeks into a statewide lockdown. We weren’t even going to the grocery store at that point, let alone driving cross country. On the same day that we would have started our highly anticipated road trip, the governor announced that public school campuses would remain closed for the remainder of the spring semester.
So no senior spring. No senior prom. No senior skip day. No all-night party in the school gym after graduation. For the foreseeable future, no graduation at all.
And, obviously, no visit to the campus she was still eager to see before making a final decision on where to attend college.
Instead, she stayed up for hours talking on the phone with her cousin, who had a bunch of high school classmates who had gone on to that same university and loved it. She pored over the description of it in The Insider’s Guide to Colleges. She perused Instagram accounts of upperclassmen at the school, and she scoured YouTube for video clips of its dorm life.
For perhaps the first time, it was a relief to me that teens saturate themselves in social media. I knew better than to trust a school’s portrayal of itself on its website; I’m a former marketing communications professional. But could a dozen sorority girls on YouTube be wrong?
“Don’t worry,” I told her as she sat with a slightly quivering hand poised over the “click” button by which she would finalize her decision and pay her deposit. “When the dust settles, maybe in late June, we’ll take a trip out there. Your decision will already be made, but at least you’ll get a look at the place you’ll be attending for the next four years.”
No such luck, of course. The dust did not settle. As the contagion numbers rose, we grew ever more wary of the idea of anyone in our family leave the house.
My daughter suggested that she and her 21-year-old brother take a quick spin out to visit the school later in the summer, after the mid-July outdoor graduation ceremony that her high school administrators had miraculously organized would take place, the kids masked and socially distanced, no mortarboard-tossing or group photos allowed. “I just can’t see arriving on move-in day without ever having seen the place,” she implored.
At that point I was beyond reassuring her. “If it seems possible,” I told her pessimistically.
By mid-July, not only were we still barely leaving our house, we no longer believed she had to worry about arriving for the start of the fall semester never having seen the place – because we no longer believed that there would be a fall semester. Every day there were new announcements of colleges making plans to be online-only for the foreseeable future. When there was no such news from her school, my husband cynically remarked that the university was staying open merely to support its revenue-generating Big Ten football team. When word came via ESPN that the Big Ten conference had canceled its fall sports season, we assumed news of the campus’s closing would come within days, if not hours.
But it didn’t. Instead, there were chatty emails from college administrators, and webinars at which the chancellor explained how campus life would function, mid-pandemic. There were instructions to get a COVID-19 test three days before traveling to campus, and another one to be conducted within two hours of arrival.
Throughout the early days of August, we waited for the email to arrive. “Unfortunately, disappointingly, in light of current statistics….”
But the email never arrived. I booked hotels for the two-day drive to and from the school and a hotel for the one night we would spend there after helping our daughter move in. And then my husband balked again, and I canceled all the hotel reservations and booked her a flight. “I could fly with her….” I suggested.
“It just doesn’t make sense, given how careful we’ve been to avoid contagion for the past five months, for you to risk it with airports and planes and dorms and restaurants,” he insisted.
And so as my Facebook feed filled with photos of my friends’ children posing in their new dorm rooms, arm in arm with their parents, I helped my daughter pack her belongings into cartons that would be shipped out to await her arrival. I rummaged up duffel bags and suitcases for her to choose among for her meager checked-luggage allotment.
And I tried to ignore my guilt. What kind of parent doesn’t accompany her child to college? What kind of mother drops her only daughter off at the airport with a quick double-parked hug and says “See you at Thanksgiving!”? How could I be doing something so seemingly callous?
But my daughter did not care. All that mattered to her was that her campus was opening up and she would be there. Earlier in the spring she’d made a rueful joke about fearing that she might earn a four-year degree from the school without ever setting foot on its grounds. “Someday I’ll find myself telling someone I went to the University of Wisconsin and they’ll say ‘Oh, I love Madison!’ and I’ll say ‘Yes, I’ve heard it’s beautiful,’” she said.
But then she was assigned a move-in date. And then that date was only a week away. And then she could see social media posts from other freshmen moving onto campus and began to believe that it was actually going to happen.
So at 5:00 a.m. on the last Thursday in August, we put her suitcase and duffel in the trunk of the car and drove to the airport. We pulled up to the curb and double parked. All three of us jumped out of the car and hugged in a tight knot in the pre-dawn gray light. My daughter put her N95 mask on, then a brightly colored cloth one over it.
Double-masked and solitary, she wheeled her suitcase through the glass doors, and we drove home.
On the way, I remembered all the disappointments she’d weathered since school closed in March. Not just the cancellation of all school-related activities, but the summer fun she’d expected to have after finishing high school as well. No trips to the beach with crowds of friends. No late-night graduation parties. No weekend getaways to someone’s family’s vacation home. We hadn’t even allowed her to continue her job as a barista at a local coffee shop.
A miserable spring had yielded to an uncertain summer, but now fall was on the way, and with it the thrill of new beginnings. Yes, it was going to be unimaginably strange to try to meet 30,000 new people while masked. Yes, she was far from home. But at last, after five months, her wish was coming true. She was going off to college. She was boarding a plane and taking two flights to reach a city 1,100 miles away in a state she’d never set foot in.
And she couldn’t wait another minute for her life to restart.