Maybe it’s human nature to identify symmetries between significant events. That would absolve the elderly aunt in my wife’s family for repeatedly noting that January 16 was the date of her husband’s birth, the anniversary of his marriage to her, and the date of his death; it was nothing more than coincidence, perhaps, but it was coincidence worth remarking on.
On a late-August Friday afternoon in 1997, we brought our son—born seven weeks premature—home from the hospital for the first time, set him on the floor with us while we ate takeout burritos, and looked at each other as if to say: Now what? On a late-August Friday afternoon in 2015, we came home from dropping that son off at college, talked about what to do for dinner, and looked at each other again as if to say: Now what? Two summer Fridays separated by exactly eighteen years: coincidence, but also symmetry.
The hours (days, weeks) preceding his departure were taken up by, among other things, reminiscing aloud about my own college experience. Endlessly fascinating stuff! To me, at least, in a textbook demonstration of what brain researchers call the “reminiscence bump” in action (when asked to reflect on memories, adults disproportionately recall experiences they had between the ages of ten and twenty-five). My larger goal, though, was to avoid repeating what I saw as the errors of my father—who when I told him I wanted to major in English, for instance, said to have fun trying to put food on the table; who when I told him I’d been skipping Mass despite living within yards of the campus church, turned to my mother and complained: Did you hear what your son just said? In this, I think I succeeded. I am supportive of my son’s intention to major in literature, for one thing. And where he is, there’s no on-campus church for him to feel guilty about not stepping foot in.
As with so many things that come with leaving home, it’s his turn to decide on that.
We saw him through the sacraments, made the effort to make it to Mass more often than not, and encouraged him to be active in the parish after confirmation. Throughout high school, he was a lector—it made Mass go faster, he said, though in less guarded moments he allowed he might have even liked doing it. We also were frank about the things that bothered us, both about our parish and generally, from the forever inadequate response to the sex abuse scandal to the secondary status of women to the grandstanding, demagoguing bishops promising to withhold Communion from certain Catholic political candidates… and more. Specific homilies, I’m afraid, also came in for criticism, but the many that hit the mark received due praise and further discussion.
How well will this serve him? There’s no knowing for sure, and anyway it’s part of the bigger package that was his upbringing, which included education in New York City public schools, his sharing a small apartment space with a little sister, our gradual acceptance of his vegetarianism, and his having access to the books and music my wife and I have collected over the years. I admit to taking more than a little pride when he recently told us the best thing we did was to say early on he could read anything we had on our shelves, and then his subsequent winning of a writing scholarship that will help, if minimally, defray the cost of his college education; there must be a correlation, right?
I have to trust that all of this, taken together, will stand him in good stead. It’s too late to think otherwise anyway, now that it’s his turn also to figure out how to live with roommates, how not to treat women, how to avoid the stupid behaviors college-aged kids are wired to engage in, how to know if he’s depressed (89 percent of campuses report a rise in cases of clinical depression, according to the latest Chronicle of Higher Education), how to stick with a course of study built for more than mere pursuit of post-grad financial success. This all on top of doing his laundry or buying a train ticket home. One of the things I hear from every parent who’s seen a child off to college is how vulnerable that child still seems. But it can’t, and probably shouldn’t, be any other way. Merely bringing a child into the world puts him in a vulnerable situation; sending him out into the world necessitates it. Each new step is a step into further uncertainty.
Understanding this made it no easier to take our leave, and from the generally befuddled looks on the faces of other departing parents, we weren’t the only ones to feel this way. It didn’t seem right, my wife said, on the drive home—it’s like we just left him there. I couldn’t disagree, but not ever having done it before, I couldn’t see exactly what we did wrong either. But on this late-August Friday, there was our eleven-year-old daughter, also wondering about dinner. And way too soon, of course, it will be her turn.