Saying Goodbye … In Stages


My wife and I are standing in the sweltering, mid-morning heat on the sidewalk near Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee – three long states from home – saying goodbye to our son Sam, our oldest.

We are trying to be very brave. Marcia is hugging him like she’s never going to let go. I’m being very dad-like: smiling, patting his shoulders, asking if he has enough cash, telling him he’s going to set the world on fire, which he probably will. Sam is a smart, smart kid filled to the brim with moxie and sass. Law school won’t be too much for him.

At the moment, however, it’s certainly too much for us, although we’re trying not to show it – as usual.

This isn’t our first goodbye rodeo, after all. In fact, 17 years ago this month, we put Sam on a yellow school bus for the first time, which was surprisingly difficult. I wrote at the time, “We are full of smiles and easy, good-natured conversation (with other parents at the bus stop) despite the fact we are all, I suspect, dying inside.”

Which we were. But we survived.

Thirteen years later, we did it again, dropping Sam and his stuff off at college for the first time. It felt like that awful sound you hear when you pull Velcro apart.

But again – despite a torrent of private tears and worry – we survived. Somehow. Some way. Being a parent, it turns out, is learning to say goodbye in stages.

This latest one feels the worst, I have to admit. When Sam was at Central Michigan University, he was just 90 short miles away. We could be there if he got the flu (for the record, he would NOT have let us actually do this). We could run up for a weekend visit and fill his fridge with the things he never thinks to buy for himself. He could come home.

But no more. Now, our son Sam is nearly ten hours away by car, and that’s if we put the pedal to the metal and don’t stop to pee. He is officially outside the parental dome of protection. Unless we win the lottery, there will be no quick visits for a football game, no stopping by on the way up north to drop off 50 bucks or a jacket he needs from his closet.

We won’t see him until Thanksgiving, or maybe Christmas. It doesn’t seem possible, to be honest. But then, life is like that – full of beanballs you didn’t see coming. I used to wonder, for instance, how I could possibly share my life with kids. Then I had kids, and now that they’re leaving one by one (Annie is a college sophomore, Henry a high school junior), I wonder how I can possibly live without them.

We’ll figure it out, I’m sure. As parents, you have to. You have to learn how to do the impossible and let go of people you worked decades to raise into people you wouldn’t want to let go of.

If that makes sense.

How we’ll cope this time, I have no idea. Maybe we’ll coerce Sam into weekly Skype calls (he says every two weeks, tops). Maybe we’ll find excuses to mail him a package or a card or text him a dumb question we don’t really need the answer to.

Probably, in the end, we’ll bug him more than he wants to be bugged and he’ll end up wondering why the heck we do that.

He’ll, of course, learn the answer to that question one day, about five years after he has his first kid and the dreaded yellow school bus comes chugging down the street.

Life’s funny that way.



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