A Letter To My Son As He Begins His College Years

The night before I took Jimmy to college, I couldn’t sleep a wink.  When I couldn’t stand another second of tossing and turning, I got up and wrote him a letter.  I didn’t initially plan to post it, but here it is.

I added a bit of detail to parts of the letter that wouldn't make sense to anyone other than Jimmy (since he was THERE when it happened).
This post is modified a bit from the letter I gave Jimmy.  I added some detail to parts of the letter that wouldn’t have made sense to anyone other than Jimmy (since he was THERE when it happened).

As I searched for a wrestling photo to include with this post, it brought more tears.  I have such wonderful memories of Jimmy’s wrestling tournaments and will miss them greatly.  Not just watching him wrestle, but the many hours we spent traveling together.  Often it was just the two of us driving to the off season tournaments.  Those trips brought us closer together and I wouldn’t trade that time for the world.  My love of wrestling definitely extends way beyond the mat.  And after reading this letter, hopefully Jimmy understands why.

Dear Jimmy,

I’m preparing myself to take you to college in a few hours. Those words sound so surreal, but they are all too real. When I came to your room to say goodnight to you earlier, there were so many things I wanted to say about the thoughts swirling in my head, the memories I was having, the advice I wanted to give… But my mouth must have been directly connected to my tear ducts, because every time I opened it, the waterworks started flowing and the words just wouldn’t come.

It’s probably just as well, because words couldn’t do justice to the emotions I was/am feeling. And I think as we sat there in silence, we knew what the other was thinking.

There are some things I feel I must say to you though as you venture out of the nest.  So I will let the written words be my voice.

One day before you started high school, someone convinced you to go to a wrestling practice. I truly feel that that day had a big influence on the course of all your high school days…and will have impact way beyond. You instantly fell in love with the sport and your dedication and perseverance throughout the next four years was nothing short of amazing.

You came home at the beginning of wrestling season Freshman year and announced that you were going to go to the state tournament before you graduated. You never wavered from that proclamation, no matter what life threw at you.

  • Freshman year, when you competed against opponents 20 pounds heavier and several years older than you. You said it made you stronger.
  • Off season Freshman year, when you wrestled hard core opponents who, many times, tossed you around the mat like a kitten with a ball of yarn. You always walked off talking about what you learned.
  • Summer after Freshman year, when you attended 14 days of the hardest wrestling camp in the country. You wanted to compete against the best.
  • Sophomore year, when you injured your shoulder. You worked your tail off at physical therapy to get cleared in time to wrestle in the district tournament…only to break your hand 5 days later. You never let it break your spirit.
  • Before Junior year, when you flew across country to attend the 28 day camp where you didn’t know a single soul. That took a lot of balls, as you would say.
  • Junior year, when you broke your nose during the district finals. You still advanced to the regional tournament but had to wear that lovely Hannibal Lector-esque mask. The mask was good for your nose, but bad for your vision. With limited peripheral view, the state tournament was not in the cards for you that year.

That was the tournament when YOU taught ME a lesson.

I had always prided myself on being a “try your best and have fun” Mom instead of a “be the best and win, win, win” one. As the state qualifiers stood on the coveted podium, I sat with my arms crossed, fuming and pouting. On that podium stood 2 wrestlers who had LOST to you before your injury. All I could think was how unfair it was. But after the ceremony I looked down and saw you sitting in a circle with some of your teammates AND the 2 wrestlers who were going to states instead of you. You were congratulating them and chatting and laughing. You were having fun. And you tried your best. You were doing what I had spouted at you for years. But I wasn’t.

I learned from you that day how to be a good sport. Sometimes the teacher is the student.

After the tournament I told you I was sorry you didn’t make it to states and you responded “It’s ok. I’m glad Connor made it because he’s a senior. I still have next year.”

Ah, next year.

“Next year” proved to be the worst of them all.

Senior year rolled around and with only a month until wrestling season, you got mono. Not just your run-of-the-mill mono, but the worst case your doctor had seen. Wrestling was completely out of the question. One wrong take-down would have taken OUT your enlarged spleen. And just getting out of bed most days was out of the question.  After 9 WEEKS of misery, you were finally cleared to return to normal activity, but you were very weak from being sick. Most people would have thought trying to wrestle after months of being too ill to function was hopeless. But you didn’t. You worked so incredibly hard to gain back your strength and get back on the mat.

Unfortunately what we found out the hard way during your first match back was that you had developed viral induced asthma. You were so sick for so long that your airway was a mess.  It was pretty scary – terrifying actually – watching you gasping for air before you slumped down against the wall next to the mat. I’m pretty sure you passed out for a short time. Each match you wrestled brought the same results – getting too winded or having any pressure on your chest would send your airway into a fit. But you went out there time and time again.

This was supposed to be your season to shine, but you were barely glimmering. After a difficult loss at a home meet, you were beyond frustrated. It was the first and only time I’ve ever heard you say you hate wrestling. You were still trying your best, but you weren’t having fun that day. The next day though you were right back out on the mat, remembering what you loved about the sport.

Right before the district tournament, you finally got a break (and NOT a bone this time). The asthma attacks went away. You were back and on fire. You beat some tough competition at districts to advance to regionals.

When the big day arrived for Regionals, you were feeling (mostly) like your old self again and ready to rumble. Qualifying for states was so close you could taste it. Unfortunately the cards were not only stacked against you again, they may as well have been stacked ON you.

I remember that second match so clearly. When your opponent grabbed your arm, your elbow turned ways an elbow should never turn. Your scream could be heard throughout the entire noisy gym and you dropped to the floor, writhing in pain. My heart raced as I watched you in so much pain and it sank when I saw the trainer mouth to your coach “He’s done. I’m going to call it.” But then we all heard another scream. It was you yelling “NO!” and jumping to your feet. You wouldn’t let the trainer forfeit the match. I got chills (and a bit of a panic attack). You finished the bout with one functional arm. And won.

I don’t know if you have any idea what the reaction in the stands was that day. Everyone was in complete awe of your drive and determination. I can’t remember how many matches you wrestled with one arm after that, but you kept winning. It was like The Karate Kid when he hurt his leg but kept going, finishing with that dramatic karate pose.

It finally came down to THE match. Four years of blood, sweat and tears came down to that one contest.

Winner would go to states; loser would not.

You left every fiber of your being on that mat, but came up a few seconds shy of a take-down at the end. And one point short.

One point.

My heart broke for you at that moment. If anyone deserved that win, it was you. You worked so hard for it.  You were the epitome of “gave it your all.”

You didn’t get the happily ever after ending like in the Karate Kid, but what you didn’t realize – and probably still don’t – is that you were the biggest winner of all that day.

I wish I had recorded the comments the other parents and spectators said about you. You had everyone’s highest respect. Including mine. What you accomplished with what was thrown at you was nothing short of astounding. Many would have given up after the initial mono diagnosis but you never stopped giving 100%200%.

No, you didn’t go to states. But the life lessons you learned will stay with you long after the state medal would have tarnished.

Whew, I got long winded there. You are now probably REALLY glad I was speechless in your room. But let me get back to my reason for the wrestling reminiscing: the life lessons.

  1. Being a good sport is greater than being good at sports.
  2. Life doesn’t always work out the way you plan.
  3. Quitters never win but sometimes you don’t win even if you don’t quit.
  4. Sometimes nice guys do finish last. Or fifth.
  5. The journey can be more important than the destination.
  6. You can lose, yet be the true winner.
  7. You will truly appreciate success only after a failure.

Hmmm…those sounded much more uplifting in my head.

My wish for you is that you always find “wrestling” in your life. Not literally. But my hope is that you always find something that brings you that sheer joy and unflappable determination that wrestling did.  And if you don’t have anything that makes you feel that way, keep looking.

I know you are going to be just fine at college. Your wrestling journey has prepared you in case life throws you a curveball (or “if life pins you down” may be a better metaphor).

College is going to be more fun and exciting than you can imagine, but it will also be stressful and scary at times. Know that I’m only a phone call away and ALWAYS ready to listen when you need it, help when you want it and stay out of it when you’ve got it covered.   Just remember when you are feeling overwhelmed that things WILL get better.

And, finally, you knew it was coming. My college advice for you:

  1. Go to class. Seriously, go to class.
  2. You will feel very lost at times, literally and figuratively. From directions to a building to learning a math concept, if you need help, ask!
  3. You may really like your roommate. You may hate him. You may feel both on the same day. Or within the same hour.
  4. Free time and Netflix time are not synonymous.
  5. If you realize you hate your major, do something about it. Better to be inconvenienced now than to spend years in a job you don’t enjoy.
  6. Take full advantage of everything the school has to offer. Climb a rock wall, join a club, try a new food.
  7. Real men wear pink (which is handy to know when you accidentally wash your whites and reds together on the hot cycle).
  8. Try not to come home for the first month. I know, I know, this one is shocking coming from me, but you need to give yourself a chance to get settled in. It may be tempting to retreat to the comforts of home when things get tough, but just scream “NO,” jump up off the mat and stay in the match.
  9. And last but not least – let your mother come visit whenever she wants, even if it is every weekend.

Love,

Mom


To read about the fun (and bizarre) trip Jimmy and I took to a tournament in Greensboro, click here to read What Happens In Greensboro Stays in Greensboro.

10 thoughts on “A Letter To My Son As He Begins His College Years”

  1. Jimmy didn’t get that determination, heart, work ethic & sportsmanship all on his own – so be sure to take a minute to give yourself some credit for having helped him to learn those things!

  2. You are just as an amazing mother as Jimmy is a wrestler. He will be very successful because he was raised by such a caring mother. This really touched my heart and I am so glad I read this. I wrote the same kind of letter to my son when he left for the Marines, I wish I had been better at expressing myself as you are. Simply amazing!

  3. Beautiful letter and amazing son. I remember the day I left my daughter in Missouri (we lived in Virginia). I woke up the morning we were to leave her in the hotel, looked over at her sleeping face, and lost my shit. But she made it, and is now in New York writing for Entertainment Weekly and living the dream. I wish I would have written her one of these letters. Maybe I will now. Thanks!

    Donna
    http://www.damenationblog.com

  4. What a great letter, Angela! I’m so sorry I missed all those years with your children growing up. The time has gone by sooo quickly. Now I’m the only one left in my generation of McKeowns. I’m glad your sons will carry on the name.

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