Off to College: Saying Goodbye to Your No-Longer Child

You can see it in their faces. All around us friends are letting go. We are of that age.

Our parents let us go and now here we are.

I see the sadness in their eyes and in their upbeat voices. Parents letting go of their sons' and daughters' lives -- and let's be wholly honest about our selfishness here -- a part of their lives. Our no-longer-children, off to college, military service, jobs, and apartments. Some form of first steps. Leaving behind quiet, not-quite empty rooms.

So much behind us all; so much ahead for them.

Today we dropped our son Graham off at college.

We packed our van last night; which was a breeze because our son travels like a Bedouin. In went the beach cruiser and two surfboards. All his clothes, in two duffel bags. Odds and ends in grocery bags. Sheets and comforter still in the package. Hangers. A California flag.

We left home at 7:15 in the morning. Just before we left I went upstairs. Graham was standing in the middle of his room. He had his back to me. Anyone else and I might say they were indulging in a moment's goodbye, and maybe he was, but our son is also far more organized than his parents and it could have been he was looking around just to make sure he hadn't missed anything.

I stood quietly watching him, because that's what parents do.

"Got everything?" I asked.

Maybe he knew I was standing there, maybe he didn't. He didn't say, because that's what teenagers do.

"I think so," he said.

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Strangely, his mother and I were in the car first. When you marry, you have no real idea what kind of parent you have married. I have since learned that I married a woman born to be a mother. It has changed everything for our sons. But it doesn't make this moment easy for her.

She is in the back seat.

We watch the house.

"He's not ready. He doesn't want to leave," Kathy says. I can see her in the rear view mirror. It really isn't a complete smile. She pauses, and then says, "Does he have his linens?"

On the drive we make small talk. It's actually pretty easy. My wife is a school teacher. She is always grading papers everywhere, including the car. She brought papers, but she doesn't grade them. When I glance in the rear view mirror, she is looking at the front seat.

Sometimes the act of letting go is far greater than the act of hanging on. Eckhart Tolle said this. Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual author. The only reason I know this is because I just looked it up. I have been around long enough to know Mr. Tolle isn't the first to weigh in on departure. But his thought is as apt as any and a friend sent it to me, probably with this moment in mind.

When we arrive at the dorm, parents and their offspring mill about in the parking lot, hatches and trunks throw open to the sky. From these enclaves pour many things. There are laundry bins with wheels to transport these things to the rooms. In front of us a mother and father unload their daughter's dorm items. They have filled three bins. Other items are strewn about the grass. The father is already sweating. Our Bedouin gets everything in one bin. I carry his two surfboards. If college sometimes seems like summer camp to parents, it's because we don't have to attend their classes. You try your hand at Synthetic Biosystems and Nanosystems Design.

Up in his room, Graham unpacks. Kathy makes his bed, although she hasn't done this in several years. Graham methodically goes about filling drawers. Kathy helps him unpack, too, hanging his shirts on the hangers. Dorm rooms are still small. There's no room for me where they work. I stand watching mother and son, feeling profoundly useless. Through the wall, I hear a small voice say, "Is this your bed?" and I wonder how it is for the little brother now left with his own room. Sometimes, pretty good.

Looking for something to do, I pick up a flier up off Graham's desk. The flier contains instructions for various things. First your parents instruct you. Then your peers and teachers. Then maybe a boss. The hope is that one day we will be comfortable and right with our own instructions. These current instructions are good. "If you don't know where your classes are ask. People are nice and they like to help." "Keep making friends all year." "Laundry rooms are most crowded on Sundays and least crowded on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the day."

Done with slowly hanging up clothes, Kathy picks up a random informational sheet.

"It's interesting," I say because the silence suddenly seems to weigh a little more.

His mother gives me another smile with something missing.

"I know," she says. "I hope we can take one and read it on the way home," and I know that even she doesn't care much about the best time to do laundry. What she wants is just a piece of his life, any small piece.

As Graham puts the last things away, my wife looks at me.

"He's not four anymore," she says and I know where things are going and there is no helping it because happiness is sadness and a half smile is near to crying.

His mother looks around the room. She takes her son's two pair of shoes out of their boxes and puts them under the bed.

Graham smiles at her. It is a smile you don't always see all the time when they are around all the time.

"Thanks, Mom, but I was honestly going to keep the shoes in the boxes," he says, and he does just that.

The room is growing thick with something.

Kathy runs her hand over the comforter.

"Oh. I didn't iron it."

We stand quiet.

"You can hang out, if you want," Graham says, but we know we can't. Not here.

There is a time when the child can become the parent.

"Well," says Graham, "I can help you guys take the stuff back to the car."

We have forgotten to take pictures and so we do. Mother and son sit together on the bed, but the sunlight pouring through the window throws them both into shadow so they stand and turn so that their backs are to the room and our son puts his arm around his mother and she puts her arm around him and suddenly she is crying and I have to turn and look out the window but I am not admiring the view.

I take the pictures.

My wife looks at me accusingly.

"You took too long," she says. "I wasn't emotional. There wasn't an emotional thought in my head."

She cries some more and she is smiling a little, too. She wipes her eyes.

"How am I going to get out of here, if I can't stop blubbering?" she asks.

Graham walks to the window and looks eight stories down.

"It's not that big a jump," he says.

We take the stairs. Graham walks with us back to the car. We pass other families moving in. I don't really see them, except to notice that they have the same look on their faces.

Beside the car, Kathy says, "Can I come back tomorrow?"

She is kidding. She is feeling better, although only a little.

Graham says, "I'll be here."

We drive through campus. We pass the soccer stadium and say we're going to come up for a soccer game. We pass the basketball stadium and Kathy says she'd love to see a basketball game. Like many, this college hosts events featuring folks of global renown; musicians, politicians, authors, world leaders. We'll come up to see some of them, we say, and maybe take our son out to dinner.

"He doesn't have to come if he's busy," Kathy says, and then we are passing out the main entrance and we are on the freeway on our way home.

We make small talk and then my wife tells me why she started crying.

"When I put my arm around him, he was so big. He isn't a little boy anymore."

There is something hollow in both of us but we'll make do. College is a gift and we all know we are very lucky to have it.

We drive. Outside a beautiful morning passes by, as mornings, afternoons and nights do, until suddenly you are shocked to be where you are.

Kathy types out a text.

"Graham?" I ask.

She gives me a little smile.

"Yes."

"What did you say?" I ask.

"Miss me yet?"

Her phone chimes.

"What did he say?" I ask.

She looks at me.

"Always," she sighs.

The house is empty, but it isn't empty at all.

Writing this now, I think, A page has turned.

I can't wait to read what happens next.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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