How my son’s trip overseas taught me to let go

imrs.phpI wasn’t prepared for the way I felt when my 18-year-old son, Dylan, lifted off for a trip to Asia during his winter break.

I was thrilled the moment he first told my husband and me that he wanted to use some of his savings to visit a friend studying in Shanghai and travel around the continent. Michael and I had sojourned to Southeast Asia for a few months before we were married, and Dylan would be visiting some of the same places. We were excited for him to explore the world. We told him that traveling was one of the best ways to spend his money. “Collect experiences not things,” we said. “The memories will last a lifetime.”

It was exciting for me knowing my oldest child would be on such an adventure even so far from home. Last fall, in fact, while several friends were having a hard time letting go of their first-borns headed off to college, I was oddly okay with Dylan leaving home. I chalked my coolness up to that he’d already been away — sleep-away camps and a summer job in New England — and I felt comfortable with him being on his own. And with his college only a few hours from home, if something went wrong we could drive to him the same day.

Then came winter break and the sheer joy of having Dylan home again. Our family of five was together and I was at peace.

On the morning of Dylan’s departure, he woke the other kids to say goodbye, stuffed a few more things in his bag, and headed to the airport. Before he and Michael pulled away, I yelled one last time, “Be safe, and text when you arrive in Shanghai.”

That night, while he was flying somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, it hit me that Dylan was really on his own. I woke hourly, each time checking the clock and counting the hours before he would land the following morning. Doubting my decision to let him go, I felt anxious, prayed, and thought about all the things that could go wrong.

As parents, we know our kids grow up and may be ready to face the world, but do we ever see them beyond little kids heading off to their first day of school? I wanted Dylan back home, building a fort in the basement for his younger sister like he did days earlier.

And then I heard from him. The first text said he’d arrived. The second text said his luggage didn’t make it. At the time, the thought of him not having his belongings seemed monumental to me. It felt like he was missing the things that connected him to home.

I frantically attempted to track down his bag. The following day, I persuaded him to go back to the airport and search lost baggage, urged him to file a second claim, and suggested he go to the airline’s office in downtown Shanghai. My efforts were futile. I was frustrated, and all the while Dylan was texting me he was all right.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” he wrote. It was exactly what I needed to hear. He was okay and I could let go. From that moment on I gave him space to be on his own and to discover the wonder of new places without my input. There was no more talk about lost luggage or what he should do next. I knew that he’d figure it out and that the life lessons would be deep.

Several days into the trip (now traveling with his good friend, Jack), Dylan sent a photo from the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. The sky was blue and clear, the city and harbor sprawled far below, and he was smiling and wearing the same clothes he left home in. His note read, “I thought I could never study abroad anywhere but Europe, but I could definitely do it here.”

And I was at peace.

O’Keefe is a manager of content development at National Geographic Expeditions and believes in the transformative power of travel. She tweets @sokeefetrav.

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