I have been speaking with some parents and guardians who’ve sent a child off to college. Many moons ago, someone told me that October is when you really feel their absence. Please enjoy this piece I wrote some 10 years ago when Davirah and I dropped my son off at college.
Someone told me that October is when you really feel the absence of a child you’ve sent away to college for the first time. They were right.
The drop-off was challenging. Of course, as luck would have it, DJ needed to be on campus on Tuesday, not before and not after! Tuesday. Orientation for New Faculty and Staff, anyone? Talk about timing! So, I made arrangements to leave for Oberlin College in Ohio late Monday morning, only to return on Tuesday evening for day 2 of orientation.
My son and I would spend the night in a passable hotel, get up the next day and move him in. The plan was for my wife to drive out with my daughter at an ungodly hour on Tuesday morning in order to relieve me early that afternoon. I’d move him in and she’d set him up. I’d take our daughter, Bria, back with me for a nearly straight 14-hour round trip for her. And that’s just what we did.
That was the easy part. Saying goodbye was the hard part.
The drive out began with an hour of silence—an unperturbedness that was as awkward as it was pleasant. Then DJ drifted asleep for the next hour. I was grateful when he awoke in time enough to grab a bite with me at a rest stop. I was thankful for the break in silence and even more pleased as we gabbed for the next 4-and-a-half hours. I could glimpse the fullness of his gentle soul: his slight build, his penetrating questions, his naiveté, the fear in his eyes, the mock husk in his voice, his quiet.
After we moved into room 341, set it up with his roommate and his roommate’s dad, visited the campus resources fair, and took in a little campus culture, my wife arrived for her leg of this rite of passage. It was time for me to head back home.
A recent piece in the Washington Post in which Michael Gerson writes about dropping off his eldest son freshman year captures it best. “The emotions of a parent,” he explains, “are an odd mix: part pride, part resignation, part self pity, even a bit of something that feels like grief. The experience is natural and common. And still, planets are thrown off their axes.”
I had avoided it at first but now it was time to say goodbye. I put on my best face as we approached. The hug was as firm as it was warm. I squeezed and lingered like he used to do when he was a boy, bent and in need. I held on tight, feeling every moment of him. The more tensely I held, the more difficult it became to hold back the tears. So, I just stopped fighting. Then there was warmth and a brief moment where I forgot where I was.
But, as Gerson instructs, “That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value most”: our story time, our piggyback rides, our apple picking, our barbershop trips, our backyard campouts, our football throws, our family vacations, our long runs, our big talks, our movie nights, our senseless fights. Time is the culprit. Our 18 years together had led to this parking lot moment.
My wife and I joke that the house will be cleaner now that he’s away at college and that we won’t have to worry about the toothpaste gobs in the sink or the unmade bed or the badly folded laundry or the ding in his car door or the hectic backpack or the Gatorade stains on the carpet. We won’t even have to buy vegetarian for a while.
But then I wondered about whether these foibles consumed far too much of our time over his years. Now, like Anna Quindlen in Loud and Clear, I find myself wondering whether I had lived in the moment enough, whether I had been in too much of a hurry to get on to the next thing, whether I had treasured the doing enough rather the getting it done, whether I should have backed off and let him be.
These questions will occupy me for some time, I’m sure. I was pretty hard on my son. Like any parent, I wanted the best for him. So, I will try not to glorify the past and compensate for any time lost and those mistakes made. My son does not need me to sanitize what was or implant what could have been. I will instead delight in moving on and appreciating what comes next.
Gerson reminds me of the privilege and responsibility it is to raise a child, to occupy a significant place in the life of another person. “Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice,” he insists. “But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story.” Let us remember this about our students, our children.