Saturday, September 17, 2016

Goodbyes are Hard


Goodbyes are hard. Rituals and transitions can stir an intense and broad range of emotions. Such was the case when I dropped my firstborn off for her first year of college. I found myself simultaneously feeling elation, hesitation, sadness, excitement, fear, and grief.

Sitting among fellow parents gathered in Eaton Chapel to hear an address given by Scott Bierman, the president of Beloit College, I glanced around, looking for clues on the faces of the other parents. Were they having as much trouble keeping it together? The afternoon's speakers heightened our emotional intensity, reflecting poignantly about this time of transition for all the families who had gathered together. President Bierman described dropping his own daughters off at college. Then the Dean of Students Christina Klawitter asked the incoming first-year students to consider their parents' perspective, to let their parents baby them on that day, just one last time, "if your parents want to make up your bed for you today, let them. If they want to fold and put away your clothes, let them." Half an hour earlier, I had made up Geneva's bed and filled her dresser drawers for her. She had let me.


Judging from the anxious questions posed on the Facebook group for parents of Beloit student class of 2020, I had not been alone in my obsessive focus on making sure my daughter had everything she needed for college. One parent asked, "will my child need to bring an ironing board, or will those be provided?" My favorite response to that was, "my daughter has never ironed??" One could just imagine the college presenting each incoming student with an ironing board, along with a poodle skirt and, for the young men, some Beloit cufflinks.

Someone else wanted to know if her student should bring a landline phone. I believe every child arrived at college with several devices to access the internet and/or make phone calls. Come to think of it, do millennials even make phone calls? Maybe that same mom could have responded, "my daughter has never made a phone call??" I laughed at some of these posts by the other eager parents of freshmen, but I know that I also got carried away with “Operation Have Everything Ready and Perfect to Launch Boonie.” The night before dropping her off, I stayed up late doing laundry so that she would arrive with no dirty clothes. Was that necessary? No, but it felt good to me, and I was having trouble sleeping anyway.

The day began with Geneva tiptoeing into my bedroom. "Are you excited?!" she whispered. I don't know too many days in life more exciting than the day one leaves home and starts a new life. When Truman came out of his room, he was dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a tie. He felt the occasion called for formal dress. I wasn’t aware that he had even packed a tie.

Living in the idyllic college town of Davis, California, I've experienced the arrival of incoming freshmen students for years. Even if I didn't have a professor husband, I couldn't escape the impact of arriving students each fall. In Davis, they make themselves known by their unsure and unsafe bicycle riding. Once while I was circling a bicycle round-about, a student cut right through the center while looking straight at me and yelling his warning to "look out! I don't know where I'm going!" I was annoyed at the time of the collision, but now I can't help but see these students as I see my own daughter. Like the students at Beloit College, the UC Davis freshmen seem so much younger than they once did. As Andy says, the students get younger every year.


After the president's welcome, Beloit hosted a dessert reception on the quad. The welcoming committee of students lead the dancing and frisbee-playing, and we sampled the tasty treats, enough to feed a small army. Beloit administrators were using sweets to soften the sting of our goodbyes. Looking around the crowd, I saw such a mixture of reactions. Some students (including mine) were dancing with their parents. Geneva yelled, "Mommy! It's that song you love!" I smiled thinking three thoughts: dancing is joy; It's hard to feel sad when you're dancing, and families dancing together are my favorite to watch. Alongside the musical merriment were more subdued parents and students looking overwhelmed and anxious, quietly talking or staring at the grass, some already crying. I understood that reaction too.

We parents had been given our gentle orders: after dessert, it was time for hugs and kisses and teary goodbyes so that our "children" could leave us to have their first dinner together in the dining hall. I thought back to the first day of kindergarten when we had surely all gone through a similar process, kissing our fresh-faced, sweet-smelling sweetie pies goodbye and turning them over to teachers with sympathetic smiles who knew that parents needed as much encouragement on that first day as the kinders, sometimes more. If we pulled off goodbye then, we could manage today, too.


I think that Geneva may have been the last to enter the dining hall that evening. She left us walking backward, waving non-stop until she reached the steps. Then she turned and disappeared into the hall and into her new life.

As we make our drive back west, each passing mile takes us farther from our girl, and reinforces the new distance between us. And although I'm feeling predictably sad, I'm surprised with my overall sense of contentment and resolution. With the goodbyes behind us, we shift our focus forward, as always. This time of transition, of beginnings and new directions, reminds me of my own first days in college. I survived, and so will she. We left Beloit ready to trust her professors and other college leaders. I eagerly anticipate texts and photos and even sometimes a phone call from my millennial. I can't wait to hear all about her adventures.





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