The hardest thing I’ve had to do so far

Last weekend my wife Margie and I drove our oldest daughter from our home in suburban Minneapolis to start college at DePaul University in Chicago. We spent two days with her, getting her settled and exploring that wonderful city. After our last afternoon in the Loop, we returned to campus, kissed her one last time, and watched her head into her dorm. Margie and I then splurged on fabulous meal (restaurant recommendation: Perennial Virant), reminisced about our girl, spent a sleepless night at our hotel, got up at 4:30 AM, stopped in the street in front of her dorm, looked at her window, and drove the 414 miles home.

It was a weirdly profound experience — one I hope I never forget, even as I hope the pain subsides. This is a condensed chronicle of my thoughts throughout.

This roadtrip to Chicago is the greatest drive we’ve ever taken. It’s going so fast!

Wait. I don’t want this drive to go fast. I want it to slow down.

Why do Margie and Lucy say we should get our breakfast to go? I don’t want to get it to go. I want to stay right here in this coffee shop in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I want more time.

Lucy keeps asking us to turn the radio to the Broadway Tunes channel. And when a show tune she loves comes on she yells “turn it up!” as if it’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” when really it’s some song from “A Chorus Line.” What a dork.

Wow. This is going to be tough.

Ah, the Chicago skyline.

Ah, the Chicago traffic.

So this is it. Her room. She needs more stuff. Let’s go to Target. Let’s go get her more stuff. This is something I can do for her. Stuff.

I should have been a farmer! Because farm kids don’t really leave home, right? They stick around, help with the family operation, eventually take over while the dad hangs around sipping coffee and acting patriarchal. Isn’t that how farm families work? No?

Get control of yourself, you big dope. This is something to be proud of. Your oldest daughter, a bright, creative, independent young woman, is enrolling at a fine university in a program that seems exactly right for her. Do not try to stop this.

I need to try and stop this.

I’ve heard people say it’s so nice to have your kids leave the house. Every one of those people is a lying bastard.

I feel sad, and that makes me angry. Is there something I can punch? What can I punch?

I have three other fantastic kids at home. None of them are leaving Minnesota. Ever. I can’t go through this again. As soon as I get home I’m moving us all into the woods.

Other animals don’t do this, right? They don’t take their kids 400 miles away and just leave them there. I think bears are really protective of their cubs, right? And I’m her papa bear! I should be defending her. Oh, if only I’d been born a bear! Bears are awesome.

Actually, I’m quite sure bear cubs don’t stay with their papa bears forever.

Actually, I think some bears might even kill their young. Or is it that the young kill the parents?

Actually, I know nothing about bears.

Speaking of bears, she better not become a Bears fan. I need to send her some Vikings gear.

What are we doing? This kid belongs in one place, and that place is our house in Minnesota. Going away to college is just stupid.

Hey, I have just discovered an unexplored flaw in our society: we send our kids away to college. Oh modern America, what is wrong with you! Your tradition of sending kids away to school probably contributes to all sorts of social ills. Fortunately, someone has finally recognized this, and that someone is me. I shall fix it! I shall start a movement!  There will be banners and parades! People will dump buckets of ice water on their heads to support my cause! First things first: a domain name. Is available? No wait: not dotcom: this is totally a dot org. This is a non-profit!  This is for society’s good! This will be my life’s work!

No. Not a non-profit. A business. For huge profits. Parents sending kids away to college are what savvy businessfolk call an underserved market.  There are all sorts of products and services for parents of young children — but what about for parents with an 18-year old daughter on a distant campus? Here’s the idea: a mobile app that sends reassuring text messages to parents on a college kid’s behalf.  We name it “Call Your Mother.” What parent wouldn’t pay for this? (ED. NOTE: Actually, this is a pretty good idea.)

Why am I in this hotel, staring at a picture of Abe Lincoln on the wall at 2:00 AM, while she is in that dorm room a mile away?  She’s our child. Shouldn’t we be together? Can I break into that dorm room? I wouldn’t even wake her up. I’d just look at her for a while. She doesn’t even need to know it.

I’ve always encouraged her independence. I would never consider myself a helicopter parent. Maybe I am.

I just don’t want her to graduate from DePaul, and then go to grad school in, I don’t know, Phoenix, and then end up meeting some dude from Arizona, and I spend the rest of my life seeing my grandkids and my lovely, lovely daughter at Christmas and for one weekend each summer. In Arizona, of all places. And she doesn’t like hot weather.

Look at her, sitting on the el train, one pink earbud in to listen to music, one out to stay attuned to what’s going on around her. She is so poised, so prepared. I’m going to sneak a photo of her while I pretend to check my phone. Ha. She doesn’t even know I took it.

You know what? She’s going to be cool to know as an adult.

Last time we were in Chicago I became a member of the Art Institute. That was so smart. Look at those tourists, waiting in the long line for tickets. We get to use the separate member entrance and just flash our membership card, like VIPs. It’s so quick.

Wait. Today I don’t want quick. Can we go back and get in the long line? Can I revoke my membership?

Some part of me physically hurts. Am I being stabbed? It’s sort of beneath my ribs. What is that? Is that my heart? My guts?

Not much longer now. It’s coming. The goodbye. I have maybe 10 more minutes with her.

This is the hardest thing I’ve had to do so far.

This is where we’re saying goodbye? Right here on this sidewalk? This isn’t what I planned. I had planned a momentous paternal speech, filled with wisdom and wry humor. What was I going to say to her again? I can’t say anything to her. I can’t even bear to look at her. If I do I’ll melt on this sidewalk.

I guess I just tell her I love her.

There she goes. My girl. Into her future.

Are these tears? Am I seriously starting to weep? I’m not a weeper. I haven’t wept in years. I’m a happy guy. It’s one of my features. Sad sucks. I don’t want to be sad.

Time is cruel.

Is this grief? Is it fear? What is it?

C’mon. She’ll be home at Thanksgiving. Real grief is felt by the parent who has lost a child. Real fear is felt by the parent of a soldier headed into harm’s way. Stop being such a baby.

But this hurts like grief. If this isn’t grief, what is it?

Maybe sorrow? Maybe lamentation? What do I call this?

Maybe call it being a wuss. Stop being such a baby.

If this the hardest thing I’ve done so far, I’ve had one blessed life.

But still. That stabbing. These wet cheeks.

I should call my mom and dad and scold them for not preparing me for this. No, and apologize if I did this same thing to them, 26 years ago. Why didn’t they tell me I was doing this to them?

Hey, what about Spain?!  Yeah, the country. Spain.  I think I’ve heard that in Spain kids don’t really leave home. They stay in their family’s home, and when they grow up I think they just move into an apartment upstairs or something.

Actually, I know less about Spain than I know about bears.

There sure are a lot of Dunkin Donuts in Chicago.

So I’m supposed to just aim this car away from her? Go back to Minnesota without her? This doesn’t seem possible. It’s like pulling a planet away from its star. This defies physics.

Sadness, pride, joy, and love all prove there is more to this existence than mere physics.

Jase, you keep saying this is the hardest thing you’ve done so far. That’s wrong. You’re not really doing anything. If anything, she’s doing it, and Time is doing it.  Watch your grammar. You are an object, not the subject.

There’s this: you do get to keep being her dad. You just have to do it in a new way. You have no other choice. You can’t become a farmer. You can’t become a bear. You can’t move to Spain. And even if it hurts like a ripping rib, you would never want her to be doing anything other than becoming herself.