A letter to my son, who has just left for college

"I'd like to order a son for my refrigerator." That's what I actually said when I called to order a micro-fridge for your dorm room. The clerk and I both burst out laughing.

And that's when the first tears broke through; after my mouth told my heart that I missed you far more than my mind allowed.

It's happened more than once in the week since you left us to become a freshman at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. I've had to stop short on Broadway, breath stapled to my ribs, vision blinded by sudden, stinging tears, as I watched new parents cradling infants in Snugglies close to their hearts.

It seems so long ago, or just yesterday, that I held you that way.

Those dazed and dazzled new parents probably wouldn't consider a child with a 5 o'clock shadow, a driver's license, and a gorgeous girlfriend in the same category as their softly unfolding rosebuds. I didn't. But I also know they can't yet imagine the richness of love that grows exponentially day by day, year by year.

But I know how love grows: You taught me.

I learned in your babyhood as I coped

with fatigue while you ebulliently finger-

painted your highchair with chocolate pudding, and greeted the 5 a.m. parade of garbage trucks up West End Avenue with shrieks of joy.

I ran races with that love during the never-sit-down toddler years when your Size 1 sneakers ran so swiftly they never touched the sidewalk.

I tried desperately to keep pace with that love in the middle years, a blur of mashed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, ripped homework, lost backpacks, raucous sleepovers, and endless soccer tournaments.

And I drank love to the sometimes bitter dregs in adolescence, when we parents seemed irrelevant, but were actually more important on those few occasions that mattered - those times when you resisted, but seemed to long for our help.

I've watched my love become squared and cubed, bubbling ever-larger until it even surpassed googolplex - a numerical term you taught me that means 10 to the 10th to the 100th power, a real but unimaginable number.

Except in relation to you.

And now, when you aren't asking anymore (at least in words), I've discovered the answer to that early childhood conundrum, "How much do you love me?"

Oh, I tried my best to answer in a flat-footed way - "As deep as all the oceans in the whole wide world, as high as the highest sky, bigger than a hundred million elephants."

Or, opening my arms as wide as I could, so you could jump into the biggest hug I could manage, "This much!"

Now I think I finally know the answer: We love you as much as parents can who nourished and nurtured you for 18 years; who kept you from falling out of cribs, windows, and cars; who loved you enough to let you run free and fall; who believed you could write the paper, take the test, win the election, submit the application - all by yourself; who stepped back and let you win - and fail, make the mistake, lose the game, miss the train without (most of the time) saying "I told you so."

In the comforting and essential rituals of farewell, I ironed name tags into everything from your anoraks to boxer shorts, a hope sealed in every one (I hope your intellectual life continues to catch fire; I hope your love for literature and philosophy burns with a high flame).

I sewed buttons and hemmed and mended, a prayer in every stitch (Please, God, keep him safe; please bring him home whole). I helped you pack your trunk and boxes, savoring every last moment we spent together.

Dad and I rejoiced when you said goodbye to your family and friends with courage and good grace, man enough not to be ashamed of your tears.

Then we went with you as you entered your new universe, overjoyed to see you take your place in a small city of young people vibrant with ancient and modern ideas.

We kissed you goodbye without tears, let you go gently, and said one more important time, "Of course you can!" and "We're here when you need us, but we think you'll be just fine."

And now we continue to love you enough to let your adventures and accomplishments counterweigh the aches and losses we feel. That's love, too - to the googolplex.

But perhaps you already knew that - even before we knew we needed a son for our refrigerator.

Ellen Schecter lives in New York with her husband, daughter, and a now-full refrigerator.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: home@csps.com.

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