The Fond Freshman Farewell

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 9/2/2005)

I’m in full parental panic mode. Normally someone who dispatches life’s challenges with equanimity, the thought that my first child, a daughter, is leaving for college next week has paralyzed me with doubt and fear. I haven’t been this bad since those long-ago days when she was an infant and I used to go to her room several times every night, and put my cheek next to her mouth to make sure she was breathing.

The panic started when I attended a meeting at the high school that was supposed to alleviate my fears, and help me “transition” to this new stage in life. The guidance counselor had written out many tips to help us parents begin a thoughtful preparation, leading ultimately to an extra bedroom.

We were given such suggestions as “assessing living/survival skills of the child,” “sharing thoughts and feelings,” and my favorite “planning the farewell scene after dinner/lunch”. (My farewell plan involved hysterical sobbing, Godiva chocolate, and gin and tonics… but only for a week or so.)

And then this clincher, “Parenting rooted in love will produce relational fruit.” I pondered that bon mot for days. Sure I thought my parenting had been rooted in love, but what about those times I had raised my voice a few decibels above normal? Which would count for more – the thousands of hours spent at Mommy and Me class, story hour, and the park – or the time I (unfairly) called all of her friends’ parents after she had a party at the house when I was gone?

I think now of all the cliches that other parents had tossed out at me when my children were small. “Enjoy them now, it goes so fast!” (This when you’re walking like a zombie with a double stroller thinking you will NEVER be alone for a moment again.) “It seems like just yesterday that mine were babies!” (This spoken by a grandma type, which you will surely never be.) And, “Have fun with them – before you know it they’ll be off to college!” (I doubt it. This one clings to my leg if I even think of going somewhere without her.)

But, like most cliches, those well-meaning nuggets of forewarning were rooted in the truth. It did go fast. It does seem like just yesterday she was a baby. And before I know it, and before I’m ready, she’s off to college.

Luckily there are many things to distract me from the maudlin state I’d like to wallow in (isn’t it my due?) After all I have to assess my daughter’s living/survival skills, share my thoughts and feelings, and plan the farewell scene. But before I can accomplish those tasks, I have to purchase a microwave, a mini-refrigerator, a bed-in-a-bag, a DVD player, pillows and towels, and phone cards. I have to check the arrangements for computer access, a checking account with an ATM card, health services, and, oh yes, pay the tuition.

These tasks seemed manageable, and my daughter rose to the challenge and accomplished most of these things on her own. But for those of you unsuspecting parents out there who remember, like I do, being dropped off at the curb in front of my dorm with two grocery sacks containing all my worldly goods, there is more.

The first letter looked fairly innocuous, “Dear Parent… Now it’s easy to show your college-bound son or daughter just how much you care. For the low price of $57.95, a custom basket loaded with small essential items will be waiting in your child’s dorm room upon their arrival.” The next missive was even worse, “Once a month we will send your child a package of goodies (giant cookie, candy assortment) to show how much you are thinking about them.” I promptly dumped these blatant attempts to trade off my emotions, but not without first thinking, “What if she’s the only one who doesn’t get the cookie-of-the-month”? Will all those years of being there be wiped out by a festive basket delivered every month to her roommate, and not to her?

These thoughts can only lead to a downward spiral, culminating in the worst scenario, which is where you actually do try to think about their living/survival skills. Do they know not to wash colors with whites? If they get a sore throat will they go to the health center or wait until it turns into mono? Will they floss? Remember to wear a hat and gloves? Not eat pizza for every meal?

These are the things I will try not to mention when the farewell scene is upon me. I will smile breezily and give a jaunty peck on the cheek. I will be confident and positive in all my mannerisms. A casual little, “Call or e-mail when you get settled,” and out the door, ignoring the green-haired, nose-ringed, tatooed young gentleman sidling down her hallway. I will not be Bette Davis in the final scene. I will recite my new mantra, “Parenting rooted in love will produce relational fruit.” It’s just that it goes so fast…

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