The heavy black suitcases are weighed and checked in at the ticket counter, destined to be the first travelers on the long journey ahead. The contents of the bags have been categorized and sorted, packed and repacked many times over during the past few days. 

If only I had tucked in tiny boxes of love and travel-sized bottles of wisdom and advice. 

I would gladly have packed my heart if I thought it would pass security.

My son is excited and eager to get on the plane. He is dressed in his favorite black jeans and lucky t-shirt, a crisp passport in his pocket and emergency phone numbers hidden in his wallet.

 Looking at him now, I see a young man ready to take on the world. Stare long enough and I can still see that young boy inside, wanting to battle with plastic dinosaurs or eat a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. 

I wonder if the mere presence of a lucky t-shirt will be enough to protect him on this trip halfway around the world.

All those morning drop-offs at school, weeks at summer camp, and sleepovers with friends and relatives should have prepared me for this moment. How did we get here, when it seems I just dropped him off at preschool for a few hours this morning?

We walk as a group to the security gate in the International Terminal, the place where we will part ways for almost a month. Eight excited teenagers are lost in their chatter and texting, followed closely behind by parents pretending to be at ease with what is about to take place.

The International Terminal is off limits to anyone not traveling, apparently including mothers who aren’t yet ready to let go.

I watch my son and these other teenagers, so eager to depart for Germany and begin their month as exchange students. Some of them seem so worldly already, a few just fresh from high school graduation the previous week. 

My son is barely 15 years old, yet you’d never know it to look at him. He’s tall and slender with a face that’s always been a bit old even when he was a toddler. His thick, black hair still forms the cowlick I loved to trace when he was a baby.

I wish I could trace it right now.

We mill around outside the security gate, waiting for the signal from the teacher who’s chaperoning the trip. A nervous excitement builds as parents add last minute bits of advice or instructions to call home when they arrive in Germany. Other parents brought cameras to capture the moment but I didn’t want to make a big scene.

Maybe a picture would have been nice.

I feel awkward, wanting to give him a hug to last for a month yet needing to give him the freedom and independence he has earned.

I am so proud of him for being eager to take this trip. When I was his age, I would never have been confident enough to travel so far away from my family. He has soaked up the German language over the past two years and can’t wait to communicate with the German people and soak up the culture in their own country.

But pride and worry are playing a nasty game of tug-of-war with my heart, and I’m not sure who will win.

When the chaperone calls to the students to get in line we hug him briefly, letting him retain his teenage-boy dignity, and he’s on his way. Watching him walk through the darkened glass partition to the security check-in I feel like the air is being sucked out of my lungs. 

Like I took a piece of my heart and tossed it over Niagara Falls, unsure of where it will land.

What were we thinking, letting him go so far away alone? What if he gets lost? What if something happens to him so far from home? What if he doesn’t get along with his host family?

What if I never see him again?

I watch him walk through the metal detector and immediately be taken off to the side. His big, clunky belt buckle has set off the metal detector, something I hadn’t thought about telling him ahead of time. He looks agitated as he’s asked to empty his pockets again and take off his belt. My chest tightens as I watch his frustrated interaction with the security agent from behind the darkened glass.

And there’s nothing I can do. I cannot go to him, can’t help him figure it out.

He’s on his own.

Eventually he collects his things and puts his belt back on, then starts walking towards his group. He briefly turns to us, giving a slight nod to indicate everything he cannot say.

I’ll be fine. I’ll miss you. See you in a month.

Then he’s gone.

That moment I realized my time to guide and shelter my child is not infinite but measured. It’s measured in lessons learned, hugs given, tears shed. And once we’ve measured this time out to them, it’s up to them to use it as they see fit.

As I watched him walk away I realized that he’s going to be fine.

Whether I’m there or not. 

Because for all these years? 

I have been there.