Off to School
A father remembers sending his daughter off to college.
I just saw my younger daughter's schedule for law school. It is a monster, a lot of hours in the classroom along with the infamous reading burden. She emailed it to me. A couple of weeks ago she took the bus to her new city and found an apartment I may never visit. I wonder if any of the things she is bringing with her are things we bought for her when she last lived with us during high school. I doubt it.
The first time we did this, when we sent the older kid off to college, was steeped in ritual. As a family, we carefully studied the list of recommended items—sheets and shower slippers, headphone for a radio or personal audio device if desired—and planned the trip in great detail. Hotels in the area were hard to come by when everyone went back to school the same week, so we ended up not so close to campus at a DoubleTree clone that shared a parking lot with a pretend-Mexican-food restaurant.
Social media was still in its infancy, and so my daughter awkwardly met her roommates while I carried stuff inside like I was a KISS roadie. Standing even more awkwardly were the four sets of parents. With 12 people in a dorm room tight for four occupants, everything was awkward. The dads shook hands, the moms exchanged comments about sheets and shower slippers, and no one knew what to do next.
The stalemate was broken by someone announcing there was shopping to do. Our kid was short on needed things, as we had flown up. We had a lot of toiletries to buy; I was ignorant of how many fluids were involved in her hair maintenance, for example. Others had determined buying shampoo in the CVS at home was a better idea, since they were driving anyway and perhaps the area had no drugstores, so they were better supplied.
A quick conference among the girls suggested some common items might be purchased, such as a dorm-room minifridge that would, promise, only hold juice and not beer. Grateful for the task, we dads divided up the responsibility for buying this stuff like we were planning the Normandy invasion.
Most of the families found their way to the closest Target. Things went smoothly (we were glad for the familiarity of it all; this is something we knew) until we got to “backpack” on the list of items. My daughter and her mother got into an argument, with one side defending to the death the need for a non-Target backpack. We ended up getting directions to LL Bean, where the argument continued in the face of what seemed like hundreds of life-or-death choices.
A whole summer’s worth of angst over growing up and growing old poured out between my daughter and her mother. Would red be too girlish? Are college books the same size as high-school books? Would kids tease her about the shape, design, or strap style? Would college life be governed by the amazingly complex rules and codes of high school life where one mistake on sneaker style could lead to someone being ostracized for four years by the cool kids?
I wanted to say how those struggles to fit in in high school, especially since she was the new kid for awhile, were over—that college was different, everyone was the new kid. She’d learn it all soon enough. I was already increasingly irrelevant to her life.
It was getting ugly, and dark outside, and I tried to play my dad card and declare whatever backpack was in my daughter's hand at the moment was the winner. But there was no way to stop it. This was something that had to burn itself out, it could not be extinguished artificially. An awful lot of thoughts and feelings were left unsaid, or maybe, more accurately, said in some sort of code translated into LL Bean stock-keeping terms. At some point we settled on a backpack, and after an awful Mexican dinner came to the only mutually agreeable decision of the day: We’d drop our daughter at her dorm and everyone else would fall asleep by 9 p.m.
We greeted our oldest child the next morning to learn it was not Judgment Day. She and her roommates, even the socially awkward one, had survived the night. They chatted with each other, planned to be friends for life, resolved a bit of push-and-pull over storage space, and did not become the victims of violent crime all of us parents were certain they would. None of the parents exchanged more than a few glances. One of the other dads snagged the job of unpacking the minifridge to occupy himself, and my wife folded, refolded, and rolled the 17 pairs of socks we had brought. Empty notebooks, clean dorm rooms, all that hope and promise-ahead stuff.
I thank whoever at the college scheduled a mandated moment of separation. The students had some sort of required welcome BBQ, no parents allowed. A couple of moms and dads mumbled about staying one more night in town and checking in the next morning, but most of us understood we were being dismissed. Unneeded, but thanks!
My wife and I left. Though there seemed to have been so much to talk about on the way up I don’t think we said a word to each other for several hours as we thought long, long thoughts as we drove home. Just before we reached our street, I blurted out maybe that I was hungry and we could go somewhere for a sandwich, anywhere that was not our now-emptier house. My wife, who a.) does not like eating out and b.) does not like drinking and c.) does not like bars, announced we should head to a local bar.
We did not drink much by the standards of any decent dive bar, but we did not need much lubrication to bring on the tears. The waitress had likely seen patrons crying before in that kind of joint, but perhaps not as often a middle-aged couple in the middle of the afternoon.
Sometime in the afternoon of a late August day, the world changed again for us. For some 18 years our lives were constructed around raising kids. Everything that mattered and most things that did not (who knew a pre-teen would have opinions on what brand of ketchup to buy?) was based on what we thought was best for them.
Note the “thought was best,” because there were no instructions. You handle each moment on its own on your own. Then you end up in a bar on a sparkling afternoon looking up at planes overhead very happy and very sad. Nobody said any of this was going to be easy. Nobody ever explained how waving goodbye to a child knowing she was off to a good start would hurt so much and feel so sweet. Nobody said I’d cry a little bit about it all, but I just did.
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At home, our house empty for the first time in two decades, I walked outside and saw the trees were still a gorgeous green, with just a hint of yellow, almost too little to see—it was more of a feeling. I whacked a mosquito on my leg. I'm going to miss summer. I knew we'd all be together come next summer, but only the parents could see the clock running. There used to be a lot more summers.
I remembered not 24 hours earlier, some kid my daughter had never met stuck her head into the dorm room and said "C'mon!" as I stood there hugging her—not in that room but in a million places where she had fallen down or asked for ice cream or needed a diaper changed or had the causes of the Civil War explained. I didn't hug an 18-year-old woman but a six-year-old, a 13-year-old, an infant in diapers, a two-year-old angry about being wet in the snow.
And despite my need to hold on to her for just that much longer, she felt closer in that moment to the anonymous roommate demanding she go out the door with her than to me, and I knew how right she was to need to leave. She did not know it, but I did, that the space between us was a fraction of an inch but it was a distance I would never again cross.