You're on the college campus with your son. You're playing it cool… shoulder bumps, bro hugs, occasional comments and questions, "Nice dorm room, beautiful school, where do you eat, oh, that's cool, what's your schedule, when's practice start…" You know, on and on with the positivity and the interest.
It's all genuine, but on the inside you're looking around for something to slow. everything. down. You know it's only a matter of hours before this chapter of your life will close and you'll say goodbye. So, no, on the inside, you're not cool at all.
But this train cannot be stopped, so you just keep going… faux gut punches, corny jokes, and more comments, "Ha, nice ID picture, how far do you walk to your first class, that dude looks like he does drugs, don't do drugs, I really like your coach, you made a great choice with this school, etc..."
When they're snuggled up in the crook of your neck, miniature fingers slowly opening and closing, you can't fathom the brevity of 18 years. They're crawling within months. In no general direction, except away.
They're walking within a year. Everyone laughs and celebrates. Then you spend the next couple of years chasing them in public places, the parks, and onto the field of their older sibling's ball games. You're typically not laughing as you chase. Even when you pick them up their legs keep moving, like an Olympic long jumper in the air, signaling they want to be put down; to be free, to run.
For a few years, you get to lay down with them at night, to read books, to make up stories, to wrestle and say prayers. You can't believe how funny they are when they try and race the dark by flipping the switch and diving into bed. You can't believe how lucky you are when they fall asleep, appendages spread everywhere, eyelash brushing up against your cheek with the rise and fall of their chest.
Within four or five years, it's school time. Ha, new shoes, new backpack, new haircut. They're so committed to riding the bus on the first day like the older siblings, that they refuse your offer to drive. You jump in the car, and beat the bus to school, camouflaging yourself behind a mesquite tree to make sure they get into the building safely. It's only after they’re inside that you look down and realize you’re still in your pajamas, hiding behind a tree with sunglasses and ball cap on backwards. You jump back in your car before someone calls the cops.
It's impossible to put into words how great it is when they burst through the door and run to hug you after that first day. You hold it as long as you can, but after about a minute, they say, "You can put me down."
They're free, they want to run.
How could you explain the next few years? A blurred merry go round of sights, sounds, and experiences? Something like that. It's a rush of choir concerts, guitar lessons, and ballgames. It's a roller coaster ride. Metaphorical and literal. ER visits. Doctor visits. Late-night bedroom visits. Sunscreen, and saxophone rentals, and Gettysburg Address recitations. These are laughing-jumping-singing-exhausting-carrying sweaty bodies to bed years.
The pre-teen stage is hilarious. They hang with their friends more than you, but you know this is normal. They run through the house jumping and slapping doorways. They scavenge the kitchen, leaving scraps behind; echoes of pranks and laughter as well.
It's so much fun watching their maturity and humor oscillate back and forth between grown up and child. They're trying to find a balance. And so are you. The name of the game is independence. You're happy to play the game with them. You miss them when they exert their budding maturity, but you know they can't be corralled or held back.
Pages blow off the calendar and onto the floor, except now the calendars are all digital, so I don't know where they go... into the cyber past somewhere?
God, it's all into the past somewhere.
And what is the past to God? Does he live outside the past? Or in his great accommodation is he experiencing all this with you in real-time; vulnerable, suffering, and sighing along with you in your very sighs? If he's constrained by time you don't know how everyone imagines him so powerful. But, if he lives outside of time, you don't know how he's garnered the reputation of being so personal.
Either way, time races on.
Things really change when they start driving. And who decided a human can drive at age 16? Where did this idea come from? What kind of madness is this? The first time they drive away, you watch from the porch. Watch is an understatement. More like you have the gaze of a hawk following a rabbit. You stare at the car as long as you possibly can. You imagine you have x-ray vision. You never get x-ray vision, but your eyes remain unblinking, convinced you will get x-ray vision.
They're eleven blocks away at this point. Your mind constructs an imaginary world, based on their personality, who they are with, and where they are going. You stand there recreating what it's like inside the machine on wheels that so casually transports your heart around.
You look into the sky and see a few clouds. You feel the wind blow, the trees bend, and the skies darken. You turn to go inside your house, scoffing at the foreshadowing. You think, I'm not falling for the symbolism. This isn't a novel. It's my life. But who are you to stop the grand narrative sweeping through your existence?
Your child couldn't care less about the grand narratives of your existence. They're free. On the go. Things to do. At school. At the game. At the pool. They're on their first date, their first dance. Maybe their first kiss? You can only guess on the kiss. Ha, they don't tell you.
They cannot be controlled or coerced. They're free.
And then it's time to figure out college. You want to help, you really want to, but good Lord, college? You’re supposed to help them leave? And pay for it? You scratch your head, thinking about the weirdness of parenting, how it might be the only relationship that's designed for separation.
So, yes, fine, you help them with plans for higher education. You make sure they know about tests, and scholarships, and homework, though truthfully, some kids don't really need you to do much of any of this. The thought occurs to you that you have a child that has never once asked for help with a homework assignment. That your offspring recognizes you have nothing to offer them academically is hilarious.
You help in other ways though, including countless bits of correspondence to coaches, and camps, and official visits. You like some schools, especially when the coach likes your kid. It's funny how you never like the schools with coaches who don't like your kid.
Then they graduate high school, which is fun, and great, and weird because they're still around, but they’re not. You don't see them all summer. They have friends and a life. They're free.
And then, just like that, you're on campus. The campus.
It's move-in day, and as I said, you're playing it cool. You've made the requisite 9 trips to Target and organized everything to the best of your ability. You are finishing up lunch after which you'll drive back to the dorm room for the last hug and good bye.
You get lost in a memory, remembering what it was like driving to the hospital for the scheduled C-section on the day of his birth. He lived inside your wife's body for 9 months, more or less, and then it was time for him to get out of there. And now you're driving to his dorm, thinking he lived inside your day to day life for 18 years, more or less, and now it's time for him to get out of there.
You walk up to the room amidst other parents streaming in and out, smiling, laughing, carrying groceries, and obviously processing things much better than you. You arrive at the room trying not to think too deeply about the proverbial chapter of life that is closing right in front of your eyes, so you stand in the doorway, hands in pockets, banging your head gently against the door frame, not saying much of anything.
Your wife is trying to find things to do. She's unpacking a bowl, a plate and some silverware which strikes you as you funny. You can't imagine these are items your kid will use. Not even one time. But maybe? And if there's a chance you know mom has got it covered. Moms are amazing at pouring their love into the most specific things. She cuts the ties, unwraps the plates, folds a shirt, puts everything away, closes all the drawers, and flattens out the bed comforter, yet again.
She's delivering this boy into the dorm room with as much detail as the doctor who delivered him into the hospital room.
And then there really is nothing left to do.
Shuffling your feet, you consider reviewing 18 years of advice... "Be nice to people, be the first on the practice field and the last off the practice field, love Jesus," and a host of others… But what are you going to do, stand in the doorway of their dorm room and run through the entire list?
No, you know if they haven't got it by now, well, it doesn't mean they won't get it, it just means it'll be on their own terms. And really what other terms are there?
So, you suppress all emotion to the darkest, most subterranean corners of your soul, probably irreparably stressing your spleen in the process, and you hug them. Deeply. You hold it a little longer than normal. You can't believe how big they are, and how strong they feel, and how does one get muscles on their back like that anyhow?
They reciprocate. They're sweet, but you know they're ready for you to leave. They're giving you the signals. They want to be put down; to be free, to run.
So, you let go and leave. You just leave. Down the steps, out the door, and to your car. Spinning head, turning stomach, blurry eyes. You're so proud of this kid. You're so excited about his future. You’re so dizzy.
Will there be other days with them? Probably. Most likely. Who knows? There are no guarantees in life, save the guarantee that love holds all things together. It's the best thought… and the worst thought. You would definitely take more guarantees, but you're painfully aware that you enjoy no such luxury. You steady yourself by the car door, thinking about how epic it would be to throw up in the parking lot. Fortunately, you don't.
You slip inside your car feeling extremely grateful. You drive away knowing there's something bigger going on here. The university disappears in your rear view mirror, and you're overwhelmed by how small you are in the largeness of life.
Life is a gift. A gift, by definition, cannot be programmed, controlled, or edited. You can't force when it arrives or when it leaves. If you could, it wouldn't be a gift. True gifts are beyond you. They are overwhelming. They are humbling. The only response is to receive it with gratitude.
So, you leave your child, your heart, and a piece of your very soul behind. You have no idea what tomorrow holds, but you couldn't be more grateful.
It's all one big gift.