“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon
I’ve written in the past about days/events in your life that change you, where you are Never the Same Again. Some of these are pure joy such as the birth of a child. Others are characterized by absolute sorrow.
There is a whole other category of life changing events that share a combination of joy and sadness. They’re the reason the word “bittersweet” exists.
It seems to me that most of these bittersweet events involve change. Graduating from high school. Leaving one job that you’ve enjoyed to go to another. Moving from one place to another.
Many of these events are centered around your children, as they venture out of the nest and progress to new stages of independence. That first day of kindergarten. The first time you drop them off at sleep away camp. When they get their driver’s license and back out of the driveway on their own for the very first time.
It’s a mixture of emotions as a parent. You are happy and excited for them as they grow and develop and experience new things in life for the first time. And yet there is a tinge of sadness as their newly found independence means they are further separated from (and less dependent on) you.
As a parent, if you are doing your job right, you want your children to be strong and independent and able to stand on their own. But it doesn’t make letting go and allowing them to express that independence any easier. It is, in fact, pretty flipping hard.
This past week I had what I think might be the hardest of these “letting go” experiences – the first child freshman year college dropoff. I’ve dreaded this day for years and as I said in “In Defense of John Boehner,” I knew it would involve some serious waterworks.
Like Rob Lowe described here, there had been a build up to these emotions over the past several weeks and months. I’d look at the calendar and make a mental note. July 21 – only one more month until we drop Jack off at school. Night of August 14 – one week to go and the last Thursday night that we’ll all be sleeping under the same roof like we have for the past 18 years, 3 months, and 28 days since we brought him home from the hospital (excluding of course those nights at summer camp, visits to grandma’s house, sleepovers at friends, not to mention my many nights away on business trips, etc.). Weekend of August 16 – one last weekend to share some good times together before sending him on his way.
On each occasion, the memories came flooding back of all the great times we have had together over the years and the joy I have felt at being his father. And the tears would flow – because even though I knew that it wasn’t the end of the story, it was the beginning of the end of what has been the most fulfilling, rewarding, and often times challenging chapter of my life. My mother-in-law promises me the next chapter is equally rewarding and fulfilling and I’ll trust that she is right.
Even with all this pre-dropoff day reflection and emotion, nothing in my life really adequately prepared me when the actual day arrived. The closest thing may have been when we moved from New York to Utah five years ago. We lived on a great street in a great neighborhood. It was the only home our children knew (they didn’t remember living in London). They had great friends on the street. My wife and I had great friends on the street.
In fact, almost unbelievably, one of my closest friends Bruce – one of my college roommates – lived DIRECTLY across the street from me. We’d see each other leaving for the office in the morning or returning home at the end of a workday. We’d play in each other’s yards together or in the streets together with our kids (his four, that’s right quads, are the same age as Jack and he also has twins the same age as my younger son Alex). Our kids went to school together, played sports together, grew up together.
On our last day in New York, my friend Bruce sent me a note telling me how great it had been to live across the street from each other for the past eight years and how much he was going to miss that in the future. I had been focused on everything that comes with a move across country and excited about the change that was about to come. But when I read his email, the flood of bittersweet emotions dropped on me, because at that moment, I realized how much I too would miss everything we were leaving behind with the move.
This past Wednesday, I sent Bruce a note, telling him that I was thinking about him and his wife Coco. For while the prospect of doing one college dropoff was weighing heavily on me, I couldn’t possibly imagine what it must be like for the two of them doing it four times over a couple weeks.
Thursday morning, I woke up with all the task focused adrenaline of a man on a mission. Pack up the car. Double check the details on the check in process when we arrived on campus. Unpack and move everything into Jack’s new dorm room. There wasn’t time to get emotional – I had a job to do.
Once we’d moved everything up to the room and Liz was busy helping Jack get unpacked and organized, I settled into a chair in the common area and grabbed my iPhone to check emails. And there was a reply from Bruce.
He said he had just finished packing to take two of the four off to school and looking across the street, he imagined seeing me packing up Jack to take him on his way to wherever we’d be going if we had stayed out East. And just as it had almost exactly five years ago, Bruce’s email brought the emotions of the day down on me.
Because in that moment, I thought about how fortunate I had been to have made such great lifelong friends in college and how they have been such a BIG part of my life and who I am today. As Jack started his own college experience, I hoped that he could be equally fortunate. And while I felt that tinge of sadness that my baby boy had grown up on me, the overwhelming emotions were joy and gratitude. Joy for my son and the excitement he felt as he embarked on a new adventure. And gratitude for all of my blessings.
I stepped out in the hall and pulled myself together. Jack and Liz finished their unpacking and we went out for breakfast. After breakfast, we went back to the entrance to the dorms for the obligatory picture and final goodbyes. I gave Jack one last hug and told him that I loved him. Then turned and walked away without looking back – no need for him to see me doing my best John Boehner impression.