"...and Letting It Be"

When I adopted my two sons eight years ago, they couldn’t separate themselves fast enough from their “old” life in Brazil. As I prepared to visit my oldest son two months into his “new” college life—a lifetime for any freshman—I wondered to what extent he might have compartmentalized his now “old” family life.

author Gary Matloff visiting his son, adopted as an older child, as a freshman at college
A continuation of: “The Fine Line Between Letting Go and Being Let Go”

Even though my older son, Matt, mostly kept to himself in the house, with his younger brother, Lucas, the chatty one, a deafening silence permeated the atmosphere upon our return home from dropping him off at college. The air in Matt’s room seemed especially lifeless—though not for long. Lucas didn’t waste any time seeking out his brother’s room for his personal study and music space. “Just hear me out,” he teased, though I could see there would be no talking him out of it

Stifling a roll of my eyes, I listened and offered a few ground rules: he must keep his brother’s room neat and use it only for homework, studying, and practice. I drew the line at his request to rearrange the furniture, reminding him that nothing was to be “changed.” If not for his brother, then for me… at least for now.

And though waves of emptiness would wash over me when I’d least expect, I rode each wave back to life as the new normal. Lucas maintained his ambivalence toward his brother, and I quickly learned to sidestep his impassive stares of “So?” or sarcastic retorts of “good for him” to any tidbits about his brother.

Though contact with Matt was sporadic, and about what he needed from me at first, he also called with news, like “I got a B on my first college essay” or “I got the (part-time) job,” as he was expected to take financial ownership of his casual social activities. He even summoned me for a Facetime chat to “meet my new roommate” when his first roommate didn’t work out. Texting still was his contact of choice, such as announcing, “Just ran my first five-mile race and did pretty well,” or sending a picture of himself with the caption, “Made my costume for the renaissance festival.” These random reach outs more than made up for not hearing from him for days at a time, or his minimal (if at all) responses to my texts and care packages.

I still treaded carefully, not daring to tease too much from him. Conversations were mostly one-sided; he would determine their focus before saying an abrupt “Byeeeeee” to signal that he was done. He never asked about our lives on the home front, as he ordinarily avoided expending emotional investment in others—perhaps for fear that he wasn’t worthy enough for the sentiment to be returned. It was still his way; as such, he’d primarily seek me out for my approval and validation for his “Good Job!”


The college’s family weekend was fast approaching, but it was over a Friday and Saturday; it would be difficult to take off work that particular Friday and I had tickets for Lucas and I to see Phil Collins that evening, purchased months before. Disappointing one son over another was not an attractive prospect. Never mind that I had waited only a few decades to see Collins in concert and it wasn’t likely I’d get another chance. To further help my cause, I’d gotten mixed reviews about these college family weekends in general, and Matt didn’t seem all that excited about any of the activities.

I offered to visit the weekend he had his fall break instead, but I was taken aback when he announced that he was going to his “girlfriend’s” house, and he’d “had these plans a long time. I am going to New York,” he decisively stated. I struggled to nurse my bruised feelings and remind myself that it wasn’t about me. Still, I persisted with my ongoing drive to expand his awareness of others’ feelings. It was a familiar hit and run plunge for me—I’d dive in with my point, break into the murky waters of his egocentrism, and swim decidedly to shore. I told him that I felt a little “yucky” about his lack of interest in my coming to visit, but that I’d be fine with whatever he decided: having me come up the second day of the family weekend or come for the extended fall break weekend. But he had to let me know soon.

I didn’t mention that not coming up at all was even a thought; it would have connoted hard feelings and he would inevitably detach himself from the situation rather than risk emotional vulnerability.

“Yea, whatever” he said, his standard reply. He was going to have to think this through on his own.

A few days later, he texted that he preferred the fall break weekend. With an unseen eyebrow raised in surprise, I asked what had happened to his plans. He replied that he couldn’t go because he had a cross country meet that Saturday, and I should come see him run rather than do the family weekend. He was likely not keen on being left alone and bored through the break; my coming seemed like a matter of convenience for him, but I was still a preference. And rather than participate in a string of activities that did not hold much relevance to his new college life, the focus on attending his meet seemed more meaningful to him. Progress!


Barely 24 hours before my flight to the mid-Atlantic, Matt texted a picture of the online prompt for me to check in. Though there was no message, the photo spoke volumes to me. He was anticipating my arrival, and he dared to express as such. Huge! I kept it cool and simply responded, “I am so excited!” He responded a short while later, “It’s cooooold!” He was happy.

As I landed, my excitement gave way to nervousness. The first two months is a lifetime for any college freshman, with all the adjustments, changes, and new experiences. And yet, Matt had already dealt with such in the form of unrelenting hardship several times over. When I walked into my sons’ lives eight years ago, Matt (and Lucas) couldn’t separate themselves fast enough from their “old” life in Brazil to their “new” American family life. The extent to which he might have compartmentalized his now “old” family life from his “new” college life remained to be seen. I really had no idea what would be in store for me.

I made it to the site of his meet with seconds to spare. I spotted my son as the starting gun fired. He was instantly recognizable, yet looked different to me somehow.

I blindly followed the other parents and coaches to the different vantage points of the open track field to cheer on the runners as they made their way around varying loops, and up and down the small hills of the makeshift track. At the second vantage point, I caught Matt beaming as he apparently had spotted me. He ordinarily never smiles while running; it “breaks his concentration.”

With most students gone for the break, it was quiet back on campus. But we packed our long weekend with our usual fall festivities: apple picking, a haunted trail walk at night, hiking, and cool restaurant eats.

In our relations together, Matt was almost chatty and unusually open to questions. I felt like he let me in on more of his life from the past two months than all four years of high school. Even when silence reigned, it was the comfortable kind.

Eight years ago, I stood in front of a closed door at my sons’ orphanage, just seconds away from meeting them. As I described in my memoir, See You Tomorrow…, I vividly recall how scared I felt. Aside from a few pictures, and a brief synopsis of their backgrounds, Matt and Lucas were complete strangers to me, as I was to them. Flashing forward eight years, I feel as though I might be getting to know Matt all over again, but with fewer distractions and without the burdensome weight of his earlier life’s struggles. My son was moving forward, not as fearful of his surroundings; he was taking charge of himself and becoming more comfortable with the broadening of his horizons. Maybe eight years was just enough, after all.

GARY MATLOFF, PH.D., is a licensed psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist. He adopted nine- and 12-year-old brothers from Brazil as a single father, and chronicles his family’s story in his memoir, See You Tomorrow . . . Reclaiming the Beacon of Hope. Dr. Matloff has also been published in Kveller, parent,co, Adoption Today, APA Monitor, National Council for Adoption’s Adoption Advocate, and Portrait of Adoption. Find him online at drgarytheadoptiveparent.blogspot.com and psyched4kids.com.

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