September 3, 2010 at 1:00 am

Marney Rich Keenan: Home Life

College sendoff rips mom's heart apart

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in my case, my heart feels like it has been torn out of my chest, ripped apart, and is simultaneously walking college campuses in Ann Arbor and Cincinnati.

And since I have three kids, another piece of my heart belonging to the youngest, who has been left behind to contend with her fuddy-duddy parents, is holed up in her bedroom, trying in earnest not to brood.

A friend who also has three daughters the same age as mine recently posted on Facebook her bewilderment after sending her oldest two off to college, one of them to a study abroad program.

"How did it happen that I am watching this beautiful, confident daughter walk herself through security on her way to Europe. She was just a knucklehead toddler yesterday. ... I came home and set our dinner table for three, sat back and let Caroline hold court."

I immediately responded by resurrecting my inner Jane Austen, posting how "positively horrid" is this emptying of the nest.

We went back and forth with remember-when and wasn't-it-just-yesterday kindred spirits wallowing in our shared losses. And yet, as universal as the sadness of sending your kids off to college is, when you're in the thick of it -- the shopping for extra-long twin bed sheets, stocking up on quarters for laundry, loading up the car, the goodbye outside the dorm, returning to the way-too-quiet house, walking by the bedroom that is way too clean, the pain is so sharply personal, you think you're the only person in the world it is happening to.

It's a contrarian kind of sorrow; this letting-go stuff. Your head is telling you it's time, while your heart is saying don't leave. "I know she's ready," I cried to my best friend, my voice rippling several octaves as though on a bumpy road. "So why is it so harrrrrdddd?"

Having sent our first-born off to school two years earlier, I thought I knew what I was in for. In anticipation of that excruciating drive home, where the physical void is so tangible -- it's as if there is a ghost in the back seat -- I decided to cry early and often. By the time freshman move-in day rolled around, maybe I wouldn't make a scene.

As such, while running with the dog, I spotted a school bus in the neighborhood. My mind went directly to our old bus stop, now such hallowed ground I suspect any day now it will be enshrined in the Smithsonian. I got so choked up I had to stop running to wipe away the tears. Lucy, our black Lab, cocked her head as if to say, "What is with you? They haven't even left yet."

When I got home I realized the reason why the bus seared right through me. It is because I can tell you precisely what each of our daughters was wearing on that very first day of kindergarten and how it felt following the bus up to the elementary school so I could witness them cross the threshold into that very first classroom where, also for the first time, someone other than me would be their teacher.

It's because I can tell you with assurance that they have grown into smart, funny, kind and beautiful young women. But, because I can't tell you, for the life of me, where those years went in between, the sight of that bus felt like highway robbery. Somehow I got distracted. Or I was busy making other plans, as John Lennon sings, and the loves of my life grew up while my back was turned.

I knew I was spoiled with the oldest being only 45 minutes away in Ann Arbor.

Aidan, on the other hand, is attending Xavier University in Cincinnati, a 4 1/2 hour drive away.

I was never more impressed than we pulled up in front of Brockman Hall and two dozen upper-class students dressed in orange T-shirts swarmed the minivan, welcoming Aidan by name, and unloaded our car in two minutes flat.

All the jitters and worries seemed to dissolve in a matter of hours. Her roommate dresses like her, talks like her, laughs as often as she does. The dads hooked up the fridge and the TVs while the moms made the beds and positioned framed photos just so.

In the afternoon, after a speech by the president of the university, it was time for The Great Parting. Afterwards, the kids would break up into small groups for orientation. "We should do this now," Aidan said firmly. Her father grabbed her first, kissing her on the crown of her head: "Love you, babe." I hugged her tight, saying "I love to you to the moon."

Once in the car, my sobs were huge and slobbery. "Oh boy," my husband said, reaching in his pocket for his handkerchief.

For the next hour, all I could think of was if I was feeling this bad, how must she be faring, so far away from home, knowing no one. Just then, my phone signaled a text. It was from Aidan. Surely, she missed me already.

"It's all good," she wrote. "There are some really cute guys in my group." We both broke out in laughter.

So, thank God for cute guys, unlimited texting, Facebook and Skype, and for having been given the gift of children who, if you're lucky, will break your heart a million times over.

mkeenan@detnews.com">mkeenan@detnews.com (313) 222-2515