On Selfless Love and Guilt

Until a year and a half ago, my mother worked as a high school guidance counselor, which meant that as I was growing up, I had unlimited access to college guides. I became mildly obsessed with reading the two-page descriptions of each school, studying their SAT and GPA requirements, noting their most popular majors and whether they had a dance or theater program, and considering the snip-its about school culture from “real students.” I remember being utterly enamored with the idea of choosing my next step in life. How wonderful that I could, because of my success in school and family’s financial security, find a place that fit me, a place that felt like home. So that is how, on a morning sometime during my first year or two of high school, as I sat on top of our kitchen counter leafing through The Princeton Review’s latest collection of the Best 376 Colleges, I announced I would go to Boston College. (What this says about 14 year-old me, I am not sure, as I’m reasonably certain one of the lines in this description touted BC as a “J.Crew catalog.” In the end, though, the experiences I had and friendships I developed have proven far deeper than this superficial blurb could have ever depicted.)


In retrospect, it was a silly thing to proclaim to my mother as she washed dishes at the kitchen sink, her hands wrinkling to prunes in the warm suds. I had never set foot on any college campus, let alone one in Boston, and I was at least a year away from taking even the first steps in the admissions process. And yet, perhaps due to coincidence or to some part of me that intuitively sensed where I belonged, in December of my senior year, I received my early action acceptance letter to BC. Though I waited to accept until I had heard back from other schools and perfunctorily made pro and con lists to weigh my options, my heart had made a choice on the day I came across BC’s description in the Princeton Review.


It was a difficult thing for my mother to let me go. She had lived at home while attending college in New Jersey and hadn’t moved out of my grandparents’ home until she was a newlywed. Even then, she and my father chose to live within a 40-minute drive of each of their parents. Her first time living on her own was more than twenty years later, when my father passed away, and at that point, she had two five year-olds to care for. But she was still within a relatively short drive of her parents, who were a constant, loving fixture in my childhood. And because so much of my childhood was spent with just my mom and brother in the house, we developed a special closeness. My mother became my best friend.


Truly, my mother’s willingness to allow me to move five hours from her for school is the most overt demonstration of her selfless love for me. Though in my adolescent naïveté I promised her I would return after my four years in Boston, probably to live and work close to New York City, my mother knew better. And she still let me go, because she knew it was what I desperately wanted.


Nine years later, I’m still in Boston. I’ve created a life here, just as my mother predicted. I’ve nurtured friendships and started my teaching career here. I met and fell in love with my husband here, and we’ve settled into a beautiful life. On most days, this is exactly as I want it to be. I am happy in Boston. It is my city.


But over the past week, the distance separating Boston and New Jersey may as well be an ocean. My parents (my mother remarried 15 years ago) are still without power from Hurricane Sandy. Thankfully, their house sustained no damage, and they were able to bring my 90 year-old grandparents to stay with them. They do have a generator, so they can ration the heating of the house when it gets too cold. I realize they are lucky in many ways to have weathered the storm so well. But I also can’t shake a feeling of profound guilt that I am five hours away, snug in my warm house, easily going about my day-to-day life, while my mother tries to make the best of this bad situation. Shouldn’t I be there, the one to wait in the hours-long line for gasoline? Yes, I should be there, to help with the cooking and to care for my grandparents. And maybe I’m even a bit sad to be missing out on an opportunity for more precious time together in such a rare, simple, undistracted way.


Nine years ago, she could have said “No, you will stay here, stay close to me. I have lost too much already.” But she did not. She let me go, to begin growing into the person I longed to be. And now, I am not there.


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