One year ago, as my son packed for his first year at college, I combed my mind for parental advice. But when the goodbyes were over, the only advice left standing from 27 advice nuggets would be the one I tossed in at the last minute.
By 7 a.m. on that August weekday, his bike had been strapped to the car carrier and his new, extra-long sheets, old jeans, golf clubs and whatnot filled the hatchback. Long embraces and attempts at humor were issued by family members ("Study more than I did!") and then my son was released to begin his new phase of independence.
Almost. I was still behind the wheel and thus had six hours left to counsel.
After a spot of lunch at a Subway, I -- the parental buddha -- presented my son with a white envelope, which he opened to find an A to Z list of tips.
Alcohol: Enjoy in moderation.
Big 4: Exercise. Sleep. Food. Friends.
Clean: Bedsheets every two weeks.
The note dragged on in this absurd fashion, and included gems like: You catch more flies with honey. You don't have to be religious to have faith. Write your mom now and then. Yes is more powerful than no. Zebras are black and white; life is gray.
I would estimate that his retention rate from this cram session was zero.
The errant advice would tumble out unexpectedly hours later, when we paused on our walk around an empty quad in Minnesota.
"Expect to be lonely," I announced, while thinking Are you nuts?
"You're leaving behind a network of good friends and family and for awhile, you won't have close friends here."
Parents are supposed to be all smiles and thumbs-up during the goodbye quad walk!
"You'll make friends, weeks or months from now, good friends you'll probably have forever. But until then, you'll be leaping from one support system to the next. And during that leap is loneliness."
Well aren't you Little Miss Sunshine?
I stopped talking long enough to note the silence, not just between us, but throughout the leafy campus. As a student athlete, my son had arrived two weeks early. When he shut his dorm room door prior to our walk, it resounded in the empty hallway.
I've written about loneliness and believe this much: People are only as strong as their connections. But the 18-year-old who suddenly finds himself between sets of friends, the 30-year-old stay-at-home parent who has lost work relationships, the 65-year-old who has not replaced lost connections due to illness, death, retirement and geographical moves, and the empty nesters, like me, can all experience the pain of loneliness.
He murmured, which I took as a sign to continue.
"When you feel lonely, sit in it, and it will guide you to where you need to go. And the loneliness will end."
I woke up the next morning in a Best Western hotel, showered and started my car for the return drive.
At a gas station, I discovered my A to Z list had been quietly slipped into the passenger door pocket, becoming a piece of advice for me.
It was saying goodbye, but what else?
I drove in uneasy silence for an hour through green, unpopulated hills then received a sign -- a large highway sign outside of Osseo, Wisconsin, that read Norske Nook Bakery and Restaurant.
It was saying pie.
I put on my blinker, and moments later sat at a checker-cloth table. If I was going to sit in the feeling, too, I was going to do it with a slice of French apple and a cup of coffee.
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