In another lifetime, I moved from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the suburbs of San Diego. Complete and total culture shock aside, I thought when I stepped on the accelerator on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and left Philly with my best friend, I would never, ever return.
And for the better part of my life, I kept that promise and ghosted the city without a thought.
I didn’t realize I was asleep
About five years ago, I was invited to a former high school classmate’s surprise party that opened my adult eyes to Philadelphia. Little did the party organizer know that this one invitation would be life changing. It was an awakening of sorts at a time when I didn’t realize I was asleep. The surprise was on me and the birthday boy.
As a young person, I believed Philadelphia didn’t have much to offer me. Maybe at that specific time in my life the City of Brotherly Love didn’t have my love, but as I celebrated a million birthdays and slowly discovered my interests and passions, it stunned me to find out Philly held more of the things I revere: art, culture, gardens, arboretums, trails, trees, and seasons.
Treating my former hometown like a tourist, I realized I had made a mistake putting down permanent roots in San Diego. While at the gate waiting for my return flight to California after the birthday party, I noticed the other travelers heading to destinations in Florida where cold Philadelphians go to warm up during Spring Break. I had an epiphany that day at the Philadelphia International Airport — California should have only been, at most, a gap year for me — a year or two living in a paradise and then back home. My best friend returned home after about a year-and-a-half. I should have followed her.
She found her tribe
My youngest daughter left home to attend an East Coast college in August of 2019 and I was officially an empty-nester. I was ecstatic she had chosen a school on the other coast — some of the reasons for the excitement were admittedly selfish.
Sam made friends easily because her classmates and the school’s dorms are full of people just like her: intelligent, articulate, curious, politically active, vocal, dedicated to all social causes, and LBGTQ friendly. She had finally found her tribe, a group who valued her and made her feel welcome.
Sam returned to San Diego for the holidays but complained bitterly over the too-lengthy Christmas break last year. She informed me that for Christmas 2020 she wanted to go back to school for the intersession and not spend so. much. time. at. home.
Little did we know that 2020 was going to tell us how things were going to be and not the other way around.
COVID comes to town
When COVID19 hit the East Coast hard, Sam’s school was one of the first to shut their doors and send their students home. Sam remained in her dorm as long as she could. She stayed until the school sent an email letting all parents know that it was truly time for their kids to fly back to their own nests.
In mid-March, my youngest reluctantly returned home. She was grumpy and combative. She was bored and restless. It wasn’t like her to be so miserable. I thought she would be happy to be home and in her own bed because her two older sisters were always overjoyed to be out of their dorms.
Sam’s mood didn’t improve even after one of her sisters flew back to San Diego the following month. She saw some friends but remained mostly home-bound and in the solitary confinement of her room. I don’t know what she was doing in there but she definitely wasn’t trying to make the best of a bad situation.
I didn’t comprehend at the time that Sam, just like me, felt she didn’t belong in San Diego.
The college announced in July they would be opening in August with a new schedule of hybrid classes, significantly smaller numbers of students on campus, a revised cafeteria protocol, a twice weekly COVID test, social distancing, strict face mask rules, and a switch to 100% online after Thanksgiving.
With a forward thinking announcement, Sam’s mood improved astronomically. She glowed. She was back to herself. She chatted. She engaged with family members. She wanted to do things. She went out with her friends more often. She had hope.
And then hope retreats
Sam immediately got to work on planning her San Diego escape. The normally “I’ll take care of the details later” kid was checking things off her to-do list so fast that my head was exploding. She needed no help nor reminders, she just got it done.
After selecting her dorm room, connecting with her future housemates, paying the tuition bill, attending the Zoom webinars explaining how things were going to be, and purchasing a one way plane ticket to the East Coast, the college reversed its decision and decided not to open after all. What a sucker punch to the gut that was. I braced myself for the fallout but none came. There were no tears, no wistful sighs, no outbreaks of anger, and I wondered if Sam had suddenly accepted the ‘new reality’ (a phrase I despise, by the way).
I was clued into Sam’s reason for serenity about a week after the school’s change of heart. On a group chat, one of Sam’s friends asked her and a few other classmates if they would like to find a rental to share in Philadelphia. They could attend online classes from anywhere in the world and why not do it together. Sam was so excited and asked me if she could go.
The city I said I would never return to — oh, the irony
Initially I was terrified about Sam moving across the country in the middle of a pandemic. She has asthma. She has other health issues that might increase her chances of having a bad COVID experience. I worried about her catching the virus on one of her flights or in an airport.
But after looking into the eyes of my child and seeing that she needed this move more than she needed anything before in her life, I decided the risk was worth it for her mental health. I was witnessing firsthand the slow but steady deterioration of Sam every time she bothered to emerge from her bedroom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide are on the rise during the prolonged stay-at-home orders, and I can only imagine the impact COVID19 will have as the numbers for death and disability rise.
I had to make a decision that made the most sense for Sam. My daughter wasn’t the one who vowed so many years ago to never return to Philadelphia, it was me, and this wasn’t about me. It was about Sam. As a parent, my job is to protect my progeny. Sometimes that protection means doing what’s best for the whole person, and that includes mental health. Kids don’t always need to be happy about everything all the time but there are instances where happiness might be the only concrete thing they have.
It was not easy for me to watch her pack up her things, drive her to the airport, and head back home alone in my car, but she is so much happier where she is — in Philadelphia with her friends staying safe physically and mentally.
I let my daughter move to a major city in the middle of a global pandemic and I’d do it again. And I hope to join her soon.