August 21, 2005

Back to school

This week my son Aaron returned to college for his senior year. It truly seems that only minutes have passed since his mother and I tearfully left him at his freshman dorm room and essentially began, as he was beginning, a new life. Many parents are now bawling their way through this ritual, wondering whether they can live without the person who was the passion and obsession of their last 18 years.

Three years ago I wrote about the personal emotional crisis I was experiencing. Happily, I can testify to the parents of freshmen that they are likely to survive this struggle, as I have. However, as a service to them, I will review some of the thoughts I had in August 2002, from the perspective of three years as a college student’s parent.

“Awaiting Aaron’s birth in 1983, I vowed to myself that I would not be one of those fathers who sent his son off to college wishing he had spent more time with him, and I would not waste any opportunity to be in his company. For all those years, I have kept that promise to myself, but now that the moment of truth is near, the fact that I have given him so much of my time is no consolation. From now on, I can no longer be there with him; I can only be there for him. For me, as for most parents, that is a crushing blow.”

I now realize that being there for him is almost equally satisfying as being with him. Your collegian will prove almost daily that he or she still needs you.

“If it is true, as the experts contend, that a parent’s ability to shape personality is over after a child’s first decade, then Aaron needs to test himself in a parentless environment. He needs to do for himself things as elementary as laundry and as advanced as time budgeting. He needs to live without training wheels.”

Aaron has figured out that the best solution to time budgeting is shunning sleep, which gives him time for both studying and playing. He apparently has decided to make laundry a postgraduate field of study.

“He is so excited about the new phase of his life. He is chomping at the bit. Nowhere within me do I consider his enthusiasm to be a comment on living under our eyes. He is self-confident beyond all reason. That should feel good to me, but it doesn’t.”

Three years later, Aaron and most of his friends are still chomping at the bit, but now it is to get finished with school and begin their world conquest. This raises the question of whether college is really the great experience we want to believe it is. If it’s so great, why do so many want to get it over with so quickly?

“I try to comfort myself with the idea that all the time I reserved for him now will be available for other things. The unfinished book, the unwritten and unresearched articles, the unplayed golf courses, now can have my attention.”

Who was I kidding?
“No more confusion over whose socks or golf shirts are whose.”

Remember the laundry thing? He finds a way to get it home to Mom, and the confusion continues.

“These days, as I walk around the house, I am more aware than ever how his presence pervades virtually every room. I realize that everywhere I will be, there will be reminders that he is away. Then I tell myself that no reminders will be necessary.”

Turns out I was right about this one. Fortunately, cell phones (and a good relationship) have meant that there have been very few days when I haven’t spoken to Aaron, so he is never actually out of my life for long.

“I think of those parents who have lost children forever, and I realize how lucky we are to have him at all. We can still hear his voice, his laugh. He will just be away. Not gone. He will come home, perhaps more frequently than we fear.”

I don’t know why I used the word “fear,” but he has come home often, and it is never more frequently than we want.

“I constantly remind myself that this is part of life. You did it to your parents, and now it is your turn to be left behind. Every species’ offspring set out on their own. Grow up, get on with the next phase of your life.”

OK, this is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Aaron’s college experience: Parenthood is not a phase of life. It is the essence of life.

“Yes, all of that is true, and logical and mature, but it just doesn’t matter. Aaron will be on his own, and my heart simply ignores my brain. I will miss him terribly.”

Yes, I will.