I began this process as I do with so many things for my youngest: follow the same game plan I worked out with my older two, minus the stress of trying to figure it all out. So off we went to Bed Bath & Beyond, list in hand, to collect the things he needed to make his college dorm room his own. Bedbug-defying TwinXL mattress cover? Check. Fan? Check. Laundry basket, towels, shower toiletry kit? Check, check and check.

It wasn’t until we were saddling up to the checkout counter with our full cart that it really hit us both that he would be using this stuff in his life away from home. We were getting all of the things for his new nest, and he was about to leave ours. We’d both been here before, but he was always the happy kid tagging along on his sibling’s college shopping expedition. Could it really be his turn already?

His big sister, who now lives across the country, changed her work schedule so that she could help move him into his new dorm. She was there (via FaceTime) when he pushed the button to apply, and she wanted to be there as he settled in. She’d graduated from this school a few years earlier, and was thrilled to be able to share her school with her baby brother. Her father and I were happy for her company. Having her with us made everything feel a bit more familiar and a bit less final.

The three of us had dinner the night of move-in at a restaurant near campus we’d enjoyed during her commencement week a few years ago. The new college freshman couldn’t join us–he had dorm meetings that evening, clearly timed to ensure that lingering parents kept their distance as the freshman class began to bond. As we started on the long walk back to the hotel my daughter mentioned that she had discussed hanging out with him after dinner, and texted to see if he was still up for this. I texted as well, just to see how things were going. As she pointed out various favorite neighborhood spots along our route, she and I kept glancing at our phones for his response. Nothing.

We stopped at her favorite local ice cream shop and ran into some longtime friends whose son was also joining the freshman class. He is their only child. We sat outside the shop chatting about the bittersweet brave new world of an empty nest as we finished our cones. As we were getting up to leave, our friend wistfully asked his wife, “Can we just walk by his dorm room? Maybe we will see him as we go by.” I smiled, acknowledging the universal mood of a parent post drop off. Pre-school or college, it is the same feeling.

Walking the final blocks to our hotel I checked the phone again, knowing my text would be yet unanswered. I told myself it was a good sign that he had gone radio silent. He was exploring his new world, getting his bearings, making his way, on his own. As it was with his siblings, as it should be with him. I patted my daughter’s back as we walked, grateful to have her with us for the moment as the next chapter begins.