August is here. In a mere twelve days, I will send my firstborn to college. I have picked out the perfect Kate Spade© bedding for her to rest her weary head on. I found the cutest dachshund bath towels, lest she miss our doxie brood for even a second. A single serve Keurig, hangers, a surge protector, and a slew of other dorm essentials are stacked in our bonus room awaiting move-in day. I am sad because although I have known her for 18 years, it feels like we just met. I am not ready for her to leave me. I suspect she cannot wait to leave me.
Even though it’s been 29 years since I left home for college, I remember how excited I was to finally be on my own; to finally be ME and not part of a pair (my sister and I are identical twins). It was exciting and scary. I am excited for Heather’s new beginning. No one there will know her to be anyone other than the person she is right now. I am scared. I wonder if everything (or anything, for that matter) I have been trying to teach her for the last 18 years has sunk in?
When Heather began struggling freshman year of high school, one of my dear friends would remind me, “a year from now, everything is going to look so different than it does right now.” Boy was she right! Each year after freshman year looked shockingly different than the year prior. I have been thinking about last August. Our daughter was ready to transition socially. When we made our trip “home” to Illinois last July, my husband and I each told our parents about Heather. She was beginning her senior year of high school and wanted to be “out” and use her new name at school. Abby, our younger daughter, was against it. She was on this journey too, attending the same high school, and was not ready for this step. It made sense, to the three of us, at least, for Heather to wait to transition and begin college with a clean slate, and her new identity. I’m ashamed to admit, we asked Heather to delay her social transition to make it more comfortable for us.
I now know, asking Heather to delay being her true self was wrong, so very wrong. The selfish request was 100% based on fear. We wanted to continue to hide. This was not the social norm at the high school, in our social circle, or in our community. I read stories about teens who had “come out” in high school and endured bullying, harassment, had their car vandalized, and been physically attacked. No parent wants that for their child. I could not bear the thought of anyone hurting either of my children, physically or verbally. Heather “coming out” also meant we had to “come out” to our friends, at least those here in North Carolina. Fear was telling us we would lose friends, become social outcasts, and, possibly, endure violence.
With school beginning mid-August, it felt like we had a deadline. We arranged to meet with the school administration early that month. Many of our friendships in North Carolina had been made through our children. I worried when Heather’s friends found out at school, they would go home and tell their parents. I didn’t want close friends to find out that way. I made a list of friends I absolutely had to tell. I convinced myself I had to tell these friends in person. The week before school began, I scheduled lunch dates and began the process of “coming out.” None of the conversations ended without tears. It was emotionally draining. In fact, it was so draining, I soon realized I could only tell one person each day. I would never get through my list before school began! I pared down the list to essential friends and left the rest to fate.
I didn’t sleep much the week before school began. I played out scenarios in my head. Would Heather’s car be damaged? Would she be verbally attacked? How would she respond? How should she respond? What about Abby? Would her friends stand by her? Would other kids make fun of her? How would she respond? How should she respond? My husband had begun his own “coming out” process as well. He let his colleagues at work know about Heather. He also let his workout buddies know.
The day before school started, I was a basket case. I cried all day. I quizzed the kids. I repeated things like, “If someone says x, you respond with x.” I reminded Heather who her allies were among the teachers and administrators. I talked with Abby alone. I asked her if she supported her sister. “Yes,” she said, with an eye roll. I explained that no matter what kids said, she had to stand by Heather. If she acted angry, embarrassed, or made it a big deal, so would other kids. If she acted like it was no big deal, so would the other kids. She wasn’t convinced. She needed a weapon. If push came to shove, I told her she could tell anyone who was nasty to her to “-uck off” and I would back her up if she got in trouble. What can I say? We’re not southern belles. When I was 15, if someone had picked on one of my siblings, that is exactly what I would have said. She was armed and ready.
Later that afternoon, the doorbell rang. It was a flower delivery. The card was addressed to Heather & Abby. It was a beautiful arrangement of flowers in every color of the rainbow. The card read, “Thinking of you as you begin the new school year” and was unsigned. I called the girls downstairs. We marveled at the beautiful arrangement, and wondered, who could have sent it? Then it hit me. Earlier that morning, one of my husband’s colleagues had texted to ask how Abby spelled her name. I thought nothing of it. When I saw the envelope from the florist, Abby’s name had been spelled wrong and was corrected. Immediately, I knew who had sent it. Guess what? I cried some more. For the first time that week, I had a glimmer of hope that things were going to be okay. I don’t think the person who sent the flowers will ever appreciate how very touched I was by that simple show of support or how much strength her kind gesture gave me. Here we go, I’m crying again…
Heather & Abby’s first day of school went fine. It was one of the l o n g e s t days of my life. Their friends supported them. Her car wasn’t vandalized. Our house was not damaged. Abby didn’t have to use her weapon. The few close friends I confided in were supportive. They texted me all day to check in. It was nowhere near as bad as the story I had conjured up in my head. I breathed a sigh of relief. It actually felt good to be “out.”
In addition to all Heather’s wonderful attributes, I must add patient and understanding to the list. I’m still embarrassed that I asked her to wait to transition socially. If it felt good for me to be “out,” I can only imagine how wonderful she must have felt! Was it always easy? Of course not, this is real life. She encountered haters at school. They were few in number, and she ignored them. Much of the time, it was Heather’s classmates who sent the appropriate message to the hater by either not responding or giving the person a dirty look.
A year from now, everything is going to look so different than it does right now. I sure hope so my friend, because right now, my heart is in my throat. My baby is going to be living two hours away, without her family, for the first time in her life! I hope she draws upon everything I have taught her the last 18 years as she makes decisions that will impact the rest of her life. If acceptance truly does build resilience, I hope she will remember how much her sister, Dad, and I love and support her when she encounters hatred. And, most of all, I hope she continues to blossom into the amazing woman I am so very proud to call my daughter.