When our older son, Nate, started college, the farewell ceremony fell on a warm and unfairly seductive night. The lawn where we gathered was steeped in shadows and the ghosts of hundreds of other departing sons and daughters. The crowd hummed with anxiety and anticipation as another freshman class came together for one last send-off. We parents flanked our students, game-faced but shell-shocked that eighteen years had fast-forwarded to this forked road. Larry Summers was the college president then, and he recalled his own mother's complicated look when she hugged him good-bye at a similar crossroads thirty years earlier. Her look, he said, mixed love, pride, excitement, and apprehension. I understood his mother's expression too well. The same love and pride played across my face, the same excitement and apprehension settled in my heart like a spell of heavy weather that could blow out to sea but might also linger.
As I watched the festivities, I drifted in and out of focus, from Nate's uncertainly unfolding future to the unfinished business of parenting. Had my husband and I given him enough tools and belief in himself to manage on his own? Sure, he could sink a graceful free throw, speak respectable Spanish, and craft a persuasive essay like the one that persuaded his entrance through these ivy-covered gates. But what about the choices and values that scaffold a good life and the thousand details bubbling beneath the dailiness of survival? Had we passed along everything we planned to, by word or example? And had we listened carefully enough to Nate, as he veered into the home-stretch, answering the questions he'd asked, but more important, the ones he hadn't articulated or even imagined?
"Does the stamp go on the right?" Nate hollered, mailing a letter the week before he left home. And setting the table, another evening, "Does the spoon go inside or outside the knife?" His random questions threw me into a tailspin of regrets. Was there still time to teach him the fine-points of the postal system, review the basics of table-setting, show him how to sew on a button, or heal from a broken heart? I intended to demonstrate the many life-saving uses of duct tape and warn him to keep the gas tank a quarter full. Would there still be time for those conversations or could we have shoehorned them in years before?
"You never know when your bad luck is your good luck," my mother had counseled me, a piece of wisdom that had taken the edge off many a disappointment and softened some near-calamities. Had I shown Nate how to look for those shimmery linings inside the clouds that would surely breeze or thunder across his sky? "Nine doors will close in your face before the tenth one cracks open," my father had kindly cautioned, modeling a mix of grit and faith that I hoped I'd passed along. Remember to treat yourself kindly, I surely meant to say, and don't worry about finding your way too quickly. Meandering, experimenting, making a few u-turns (or wrong ones) is what four years of college -- and probably the rest of your twenties -- will be all about.
But that sultry September night the good-byes passed in a blur of tears and hugs while our hopes and admonitions stayed fervent but unspoken. We had taken him this far. Now he'd start to walk his own path.
Elizabeth Fishel is the co-author (with Jeffrey Arnett) of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult recently published by Workman Publishers.