FARGO - Last Sunday, my two daughters and I, fueled on drive-thru coffee, left for Duluth in a two-car caravan.
Through my rearview mirror, I kept track of the vehicle behind that held my girls and abundant boxes, contemplating the strangeness of leaving all you've ever known.
My own college send off over 30 years earlier had seemed serene. Since my only sibling, my world from infancy, had left the year before - and me, bereft - I followed with relative ease.
But our third child hesitated as the release neared, surprising us. Of our five kids, she'd seemed the most eager to plunge toward a new path.
Recently, though, something new had begun stirring within, as revealed a world away. While in Mexico for work, I texted her my final night, and was met with an unexpected outpouring that ended with, "I'm going to miss you guys - a lot."
Two days later, we started on our journey east, my vehicle leading - the last time I'd physically guide her into the world. Normally, she tended toward wandering off the path, causing consternation as we searched for our missing maiden. But on this day, she stayed near.
Despite the gray, sulking sky, no raindrops fell upon our path, but a growing pile of crumpled, soaked tissues on my empty passenger seat hinted at abundant moisture tumbling from tear ducts.
Several hours later, when all had been unpacked, and empty boxes collected, the three of us climbed onto her newly-made bed, the middle child again in the middle, as her sister and I enveloped her, struggling to find how to pull away.
What could I leave her with at such a lonely, sad time? Only the assurance of God's transcendent love would do, I thought, reminding her, "You'll never be alone."
Though she's not the first to leave our nest, she led the family in long-distance college send-offs. And I can now say the grieving is real. There's the deep loss of breaking away from the child you've spent years trying to keep safe and near, and an equally deep sense of joy; the ultimate in bittersweet.
Now, tomorrow, another milestone. My husband, realizing my 50th birthday would happen Labor Day weekend, asked if I wanted something special. "An Apple watch perhaps?"
"What about Duluth?" I proposed. A gadget wouldn't suffice; my heart yearned for only one thing - to be where the missing piece of it now resides.
So, we're bound again for Lake Superior, this time with the rest of our brood, to seek to embrace, again, our brown-eyed girl. We'll bring along all the feelings we've been holding these first tender days of her absence to offer in a bouquet of love.
Soon, we'll be watching Duluth again in the rearview mirror, tissues tucked away, as we allow the excitement of our younger daughter's bright future to carry us home.