On Thursday we took Dylan to the University of Colorado at Boulder. It hardly matters, I think, that the school is less than an hour from our home. He has fled the nest, moved away, one step closer to living an independent life. He was ready, and, I suppose, we were, too. He deserves to fly on his own.

Readers know that Dylan is actually my stepson. I came into his life when he was fourteen years old, first as his father’s girlfriend and some months after, as the surrogate mother he lost to cancer a few years earlier. None of this blending has been easy, because both families have endured losses that linger, most of which are unexpected save for the obvious placeholders – birthdays, holidays, life events – that will always feel bittersweet.

Which is why I should have anticipated the rush of longing I sensed Dylan felt for his biological mother.  It’s only natural that he would feel this way — at such a turning point moment.  You see, I saw no “step” between us; Dylan is my son. That is the way I think of him. And when your child makes this enormous leap, you do what every mother of a first-year college student does: you stack socks, underwear and t-shirts in their proper drawers; you make his new bed with sheets and a comforter — the requisite bed in a bag that you have already laundered for softness; you arrange hanging clothes in the closet, taking pain not to crease the one pair of dress pants he has brought; and, you equip his desk with a pen and pencil holder, post-it notes, files, and other sundry items in hopes of creating a suitable work space.

It surprised me, then, that Dylan pushed me and my mothering aside. “I can do it,” he said, grabbing at folded shirts on the bed and shoving them messily into the (gasp) sock drawer.

Steve was unaware of the fuss; he was busy trying to assemble a lock for Dylan’s laptop.

“Can I please put the rest away?” I asked, standing beside him with another stack of shirts in my arms.

“No, I said I can do it.”

There was no mistaking his tone.

I looked at his roommate’s mother, sweat on her brow, working frenetically to finish her son’s space. And then I thought of the odd way Dylan reacted when other mothers dropped into his room, surveying the scene. Duh. Of course, he was missing Pam, his real mother. The thought made me sad enough that I swallowed hard and left the room, propping up Pam’s picture on his desk before I went.

Later, “promise me you’ll eat your vegetables,” I said as I hugged him goodbye. We stood in the visitor parking lot, Casey, Rebecca, Dylan and I in a group hug. I could taste the tears I was stuffing down.

*  *  *

I knew it was Dylan’s right to honor his mother however he pleased (my twins have done the same thing with the father they do not remember). Yet something else was pulling at me, an idea I hadn’t fully accepted: there can be many mothers. A part of Pam still lives inside Dylan, even as I live around him now. We are the past and present at once, and I’m beginning to see that we can co-exist.

That first night and the next day all of us on the home front were feeling a bit glum, missing our college boy. I knew, though, it would be all right when Dylan texted me a photo of his first dorm dinner: two hamburgers, a grilled cheese sandwich, French fries, mashed potatoes, and five broccoli florets.

Ah, sweet broccoli.

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