There was a goodbye ritual that occurred at the end of every summer of my childhood...
As the cars, piled high with suitcases and summer paraphernalia, would begin to exit the parking lot of the bungalow colony where we had just spent the last two months, the owners of the place would stand in a line, banging on some old pots with metal spoons and sing, "We hate to see ya go, we hate to see ya go..." It was a send-off like no other and as the cars lumbered out of the lot en masse, I would turn around in my seat (you could do that back then) and look out the rear window. I watched the line of people and pots that were staying behind slowly vanish from view as we headed down the road, but I could still hear the sound of the banging (and the horns blowing) lingering for a while longer until we hit the highway.
I would've loved to have brought some pots and pans with me to express my feelings in the noisiest of ways this morning when we dropped off my youngest son at the airport, but I held back. There was just enough time for a long hug... and then another... and then another. And then he was gone.
If anyone ever tells you that it gets easier to send your kid off to college with each successive kid and with each successive year, they're lying.
There are many things written by parents about the emotional turmoil they experience when they give a final hug and squeeze to their freshman as they leave that child behind. The complexity of the mishmash of feelings is staggering: the angst, the utter pride that is intertwined with melancholy and happiness,= and, though I've been through it before many times over, that initial emptiness. It's what Erma Bombeck describes as feeling "as if you are on center stage and suddenly all the lights go out and no one even warned you."
The proverbial lights still go out when your senior wends his way down that path. But it is different: I no longer worry about whether he can handle the workload or social pressures like I did when he was a freshman. I now worry about whether he will be able to find a job with that degree he'll be getting in May. As much as I feel that last bit of metaphorical cord slipping through my fingers, I now wonder if I am going to need to eventually ravel some back. It's the old tug of war, that push and pull of emotions... wanting them to come back, not wanting them to come back, wanting them to want to come back, but hoping they don't really need to.
The sad reality of it all for college grads is so many of them do need to come back. In April of this year, CNN reported, "The Class of 2013 will face an 'extremely difficult' job market when college students graduate in the months ahead, according to a new research report." And just last week, the Chicago Tribune stated that more millennials than ever are now living with their parents. The reasons vary from emotional to financial, but mostly financial. So, the odds are rather "good" that my son will need a place to roost as he pounds the pavement.
I always believed that our job was to raise these children and give them a set of wings. Not Icarus wings, but good, sturdy ones... eagles' wings. Wings that can support the burdens and good fortunes that will be their own, the accomplishments and successes that will sit side-by-side in their bags and backpacks and suitcases... and their own homes. It's disheartening to think that those wings are being clipped, and not necessarily by parents, but by factors beyond their reach.
When I left my parents' house for good to move into my own apartment in New York City, my mom, ever the drama queen, pulled me aside, looked me in the eyes and asked, "Why are you leaving me?" The woman was usually pretty good with giving advice, whether I wanted it or not, but that day, she just couldn't pull any pearls of wisdom out of her hat... just a plaintive cry. I'm sure that once I'd gone... perhaps months later, she bragged to her friends how independent I was. And knowing Mom, she patted herself on the back for raising such a free-spirited soul. But as she clutched my sleeve that day, while I tried to hightail it outta there (that really didn't happen, but it certainly felt like it did), I promised myself I would do better when I had children of my own. No guilt trips, no making them feel sorry for growing up. And I worked very hard to fulfill that promise: I love my kids, but I want them to go out into the world and experience all that I did. It's a slippery slope.
So, this morning, as much as the pots and pans would have lent a little levity to the moment, they stayed at home. And it took all I had to not chant that chant I learned so many years ago. I recently learned that, ironically, the third line of that farewell song is, "We hope to heck you never come back." Had I sung that one, my son surely would have laughed-he knows that's not true. He knows he can always come back, but he's got those wings now... and just one more year of school. And as much as I hate to see him go (and would love him to return), I'll watch what I wish for... because "go" is what he must do.