By Elizabeth Speth
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
The college road trip, it turns out, is a sort of rite of passage for parents and their offspring. A lot of people do it, and the experience is crammed tighter than a trunk full of suitcases with opportunities for life analogies.
None of which occurred to me as I packed a rental car for a five-hour trip south with my youngest, Leland. I had other things on my mind.
Like getting lost. I mean that literally, not figuratively. I am easily disoriented. I have Directional Dyslexia. I still, after twenty years, get turned around in my small town. I go the wrong way between the bathroom and the kitchen sometimes. Stopping to figure it out only makes it worse. I wasn’t born with that bird’s-eye view in my head so many people seem to have. I’m stuck on the ground in a maze of tangled possibilities, and I invariably choose the wrong one.
My husband had thoughtfully printed out directions for me — a sheaf of papers outlining how to get from our house in Loomis, California to our motel in Morro Bay. How to get from the motel to Leland’s possible future home for the next four years. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, some twelve miles inland from our lodging.
The thought of simultaneously driving and shuffling through those papers, my son a tight coil of unhappiness in the seat beside me, deepened my anxiety.
Leland does not want to go. My poor son is conflicted, which is a testament to his very open heart, and my own aches for him.
He knows he will be homesick, from time to time. He is going to miss his friends. He’s had a great childhood here, in a prosperous community built around a lake, and football, and family, and doing-the-right-thing-or-someone-is-going-to-call-your-parents-before-you-get-home-because-we-are-all-looking-out-for-you-son. He’s loved the independence of being a young man here.
The thing that grieves him most, though, is the impending separation from his girlfriend Kris, arguably his best friend, a young woman we all love too. I don’t dismiss their love (a year or so old) as merely young, which it is, or likely transient, which it may well be. They have a very fine friendship, and they rely on each other. They are loyal, companionable, relaxed, frequently silly with each other. I often hear their laughter from the other side of the house. Individually, they are decent, strong, loving, kind individuals. Together, they comprise a structure with integrity. I admire it, and I am so glad for them. Glad they have a safe place to learn about love. I hope they each have a long life full of loving relationships after such a great start.
Now they will learn about the barbed side of such vulnerability, though. There is always, always the pain of parting. Eventually, it will happen. Every connection gets severed by either logistics or time, and where love once flowed freely there is massive hemorrhaging.
So, as I look at his profile in the car, farmland whizzing by behind him, his eyes focused inward and not on the road ahead, I bleed a little too.
We listen to his music. He plays a great selection. The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons. Hip-hop and rap he knows I’ll like. It makes the hours fly by.
“I’m sparing you the really bad stuff,” he informs me. “Some of it is pretty rough.”
I appreciate that. We stop for food, take turns driving. He laughs, not unkindly, at my sheaf of directions, which falls to the floor under his feet as he programs our destination into the GPS on his iPhone. Periodically our music is interrupted by a soothing electronic female voice telling us to bear right, to turn left in a quarter mile. The voice seems concerned when we stop for a bathroom break or deviate in any way from the plan. It insists on our course with something that sounds like anxiety until we are back on track.
It was that easy. Just like that, Leland has assumed the job of navigating for us. The reversal of roles hits me profoundly.
An enormous weight relinquishes its perch on my shoulders. My lungs expand, the road opens, the light lifts. My mental cloud clears. Which leaves me free, now, to contemplate an impending good-bye of my own.
I remember when Leland was an infant. A few days old, and in the hospital with meningitis. It was one of the darkest periods of my life. Would he survive? Would there be lasting damage to his brain, his hearing, his body? He was running out of places to stick needles. There was so little of him, after all. He wailed. He looked harassed, fevered, agonized. He had an IV in his head. How could such a tiny body house such a large threat?
The cord of attachment between us was already as wide and thick as it could be, and the thought of its severing fatal. I stayed with him in his hospital room for ten days, nursing him, willing him back to health by the sheer force of maternal imperative. When his nurses occasionally coaxed me to step outside, go for a walk, clear my head, I was filled with panic as soon as the hospital doors slid closed behind me in the brilliant, foreign sunlight. I turned around and went right back in. I did not want him to slip away from me. What if we were destined to have each other for only a very short time? I couldn’t spare a minute of it clearing my head. My head was plenty clear. I knew where I belonged.
As it turns out, we do only have each other for a very short time. A year. Eighteen years. Eighty years. All of it passing as quickly as the sweet fragrance of orange blossoms among the orchards lining Interstate 5. The car is briefly filled with it.
We reach our motel late. It is not a promising sight. They’ve left the key under the mat, and the room is dated, musty. Leland contemplates the array of possible body fluids on the plastic bedspreads. But he is smiling. We take turns brushing our teeth, slip beneath sheets and a blanket thin as Kleenex. We listen to sea lions barking throughout the night, rise before dawn and head out in search of breakfast.
In a small cafe, watching the sunrise over Morro Rock and a small fleet of sailboats, we eat a very good breakfast.
We find the campus, which is a warm and comforting place. Some of it is old, and very agricultural. Many of the buildings are soaring and modern and new. We tour the business college. We like the faculty very much. We look at the dorms. I see Leland’s face clouding over and know it’s time for lunch.
We share an enormous platter of raw oysters, happily slurping (this vegan brakes for oysters once a year or so) together. We talk a little about the future, about the difficulty of sacrificing in the short term for the long-term. We agree to leave it for a week or two, let his subconscious gnaw away at a resolution while he enjoys the last months of his senior year. We take a long walk on the beach, pack up our things and head home.
We have had an excellent, complicated time together. My son is a first-rate companion for any journey.
We follow a sure navigational path home as the sunset fills the car windows with fleecy pink. I listen to the lyrics that occupy my son’s head these days, hear them articulate how wonderful and difficult and unclear life can be.
I try to have a little faith.
I hope his road is a long and interesting one.
Through open-hearted territory.