So the big “time to go to college” day arrived. I could describe all of the feelings I was having about leaving home and going to a place where I would know nobody, but I’ll let my Dad do it. This is an excerpt of a “Pilgrimage” issue that Dad put out just after he took me to school:
The Final Fledgling
Clay and I had been counting the days till January 12, the morning of which his college would open its dorms for the spring semester. His decision to study architecture had resulted in a postponing study for a semester til they had studio room for him. But that was good, it meant we had another four months together.
Now I’m no stranger to significant family moments. I see them coming, nervously but honorably (I trust) confront them, attempt to “memorialize” them with a family discussion and prayer, and store them on a wall of honor in my gallery of memories. Graduations and departures rank right at the top. So I knew our early morning two-car exodus would be an emotionally arresting one. But I’ve always been the one to call the children’s attention to those items.
Not this one. After we had packed the cars, but before I “declared the moment,” Clay said, “Just a minute. I want to take one last look.” Now this is not the house where Clay grew up. It is not the “homestead” of his childhood memories. It is a still-new apartment. But that didn’t seem to matter. Clay knew that he was not just temporarily leaving home. He was aware that he was leaving a temporary home. And there’s a permanence about that. It showed. Mostly in his eyes that were now welling up with tears and reflecting the early winter day as he slowly closed the front door. It also showed in his voice. “I’m ready,” he said. Not all of the recent joking, planning, celebrating, and day-counting pleasures could have prevented that moment. He saw it coming, confronted it honorably, and was now ready to store it.
During the four-and-one-half hour caravan drive to college I recognized that the unfolding drama was not just “Flight of the Fledgling – Part III.” That, I had seen coming and had been ready for. But this was something much larger. If you’d asked me that day before if I was ready for this. I would have given you a confident “maybe” even a smug “yes.” The hurt I was feeling was not the kind that could have been prevented. Parenting is not measurable on any scale. No amount of preparation can be enough. My mind had failed to warn me what my heart was programmed to do. What I was feeling was a textbook application of the single-parent version of the empty nest syndrome.
We were to report to one of the all-male, all-budget dorms on the north side of the campus. I regretted that his mid-year entry may make him feel “different” somehow. I wanted everything to be super special for him. I wanted him to be a cool dude. I know I looked and sounded like the dippy parent I had usually succeeded in avoiding before now. About the same time the elevator reached Clay’s floor I was promising myself that I would stop being so silly about this.
Two more trips to the cars to unload boxes and bags into his room, an investigative tour of the dorm’s cafeteria, postal, recreational, and laundry areas, and an off-campus meal later, I began to feel like unneeded baggage that should be put in the trunk and driven home. Every parent knows what I mean. At some point in a child’s life, the parent makes a mysterious transition from proud companion to embarrassing acquaintance. As normal as that is, it’s always a difficult and delicate challenge to know when to leave and when to stick around. My instincts told me that parents and dorms wear thin in a hurry.
When I threw out a couple of “out” suggestions, Clay didn’t seem to respond to them. Finally, I said “I guess it’s time for me to go, huh?” For a second time that day he surprised me.
“Don’t go, Dad.”
And, in one of those rare occasions in life when silence is not awkward even as two pairs of eyes meet, I waited for what we both knew was going to be another utterance from Clay. He struggled a bit, then swallowed.
“You’re all I have left of home.”
I had spent all day recovering. Now all I could do is look at the floor. I had no comforting words for him. So I settled with silence. And a hug. “I’ll miss you,” I said. He nodded his head in agreement.
I didn’t leave Lawrence till the next morning. I count that twenty-four hours as one last superdaddy day.
The Kansas state highway signs are numbers displayed against a large yellow sunburst, representative of a sunflower, the state flower. I knew which way to turn driving away from campus. The highway sign would confirm that I was on my way. But by the time I came to it, it was just a large yellow blur. It looked like one of those helium-filled balloons. With a smiley face on it.
Dad went back home to pack up the apartment, move all of our stuff into storage and start his biking/writing journey. I turned, with reluctance and excitement, toward a new future. And it was in this tempest of emotion that I started the spring semester of that year.
My classes started the next week and I prepared in the usual way. I got to my first class, Drawing I, just as the instructor began to tell us what equipment and supplies we needed. Five minutes later, a beautiful girl walked in and changed my life.
[to be continued]