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.


27 thoughts on “The hardest thing I’ve had to do so far

  1. Came here via Cathy – love your story. I’m not a parent (yet), but I’ve done that to my mom, some 10 years ago. I’ll call her tomorrow and tell her I love her. Thanks for the smiles and the great read, all the best for you and your daughter!

  2. Jason,
    You’ve obviously got a lot of talents:
    1. Picking the right wife, years, and a years, and years ago.
    2. Producing beautiful, talented, and wonderful children.
    3. Putting thoughts and words together that capture the reality and agony of launching our kids into the next phase of their life.

    That beautiful wife of yours? What a lucky girl.

  3. Jason,

    Having just experienced the exact circumstances at DePaul that you poignantly describe in your post, I shared your emotions when we dropped our youngest daughter, Emily in Chicago. I, too, had rehearsed a momentous father-daughter scene worthy of a film…but when the time came, all I could do was say I love you, and stay in touch. Turns out we have more in common…it looks like both our girls are in the Theatre School, and we share prior newspaper experience. I was a photojournalist at dailies for 11 years before going freelance 20 years ago, and my wife Liz continues working as a photographer and editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer.

    Best of luck to your daughter, and I’m sure our girls will get to know each other well over the next four years…

    • Hey Jim, thanks for the comment. Actually, my daughter Lucy isn’t in the Theatre School. She had been very active in theatre while growing up (it pretty much defined her high school experience), but she enrolled at DePaul as a double major in math and computer science. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she found herself on a stage in Chicago somewhere, sometime.

      Good luck to your daughter, too!

      • Hi Jason,

        Sorry to have jumped to conclusions about you guys based on the High School Theatre photos posted on FB. She has the look! But I’m not surprised theatre helped her find her way in her high school days, in the same way performing did for me back in the day.

        Emily has said one of the greatest things about Theatre is she can lose herself and find herself at the same time.

        Best wishes for Lucy and your family!

  4. Read this on a recommendation of a friend who just “left” her son.

    Mine is going to a nearby school, but I just lost my parents in the last 20 months, and it sounds sooooo similar. Not having her here sounds horrible. Maybe just a semester in the dorm, then back home where I can wrap her in bubble wrap and quilts that I make myself.

  5. Funny, we’re from Arizona. We just sent our kid 1,500 miles away to Chicago. My fear is that he will meet some girl, move to Chicago and I will have to endure polar winters. This is my second child to leave the nest, and I can tell you it does get a little bit easier. Not much, but a little. Thanks for sharing your blog.

  6. Came over from cathy also. Preparing myself when our girl leaves for college next year. I guess a parent is never ready to let go!

  7. I started reading this while we were on our way to DePaul with our son. I couldn’t finish reading it because the tears started. I just finished it this morning… loved it. And the tears started again. You are a wonderful writer.

  8. Very true, all of it. I’m sitting on a train from Providence to NY to go meet my husband. Friday I brought my 18 year old son Jude to Logan so he could fly to Scotland to attend the University of St. Andrews. My oldest daughter is already there, she arrived a week ago to start her Masters of Philosophy. She is graduating from Trinity College Dublin on 10/26, which Is why I didn’t go with him on Friday. (Some European schools have their grad ceremonies in the fall months after they are done, makes no sense.) My second daughter is in her senior year of art school in Los Angeles.
    My point is, I have done this a few times, it doesn’t get easier. My kids are brilliant going to great schools all over the world. I’m extremely proud, it stills kills me every time they leave. People actually ask me, “how can I “let” them go so far away?” How can I not? What an opportunity!! My oldest has seen more of this world in 23 years then I might ever see. Be proud, rest easy…….you have done your job. We want not only what’s best for our kids but for them to have more opportunities.
    Thank you for the read!!

    • My son Daniel is a friend of Jude. I know Jude and consider him a fine young man. Yes, this is hard beyond words. Daniel is my youngest and we are very close, having been through thick and thin together for half his childhood. His older siblings are also scattered far from home. Leaving him at college (WPI) was something I have been preparing myself for since he was nine years old. I know it would be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But just like birthing them into this world for the first time, launching them into their independent young adulthood is heartbreaking and scary and joyful too. Yes, I too am proud of my children. They have the gift of intelligence. They are independent and full of hope and promise to make a positive difference in this world in many ways. They are the good of the future. And as they grow and change, so will we. Here’s to the next leg of our adventure.

  9. Two weeks ago we left our 18 year old daughter at a small college in Wisconsin, five hours from her home in Minnesota. We are still getting some tearful, homesick phone calls and text messages. She can do this, I know she can but I have moments where I just want to get in the car and go pick her up and bring her home. On top of that my eldest son is active military, will be shipping out soon to Ft. Campbell KY. My heart hurts but I am beaming with pride at the same time.

  10. Jason, I found this via Margie’s FB link. It certainly resonated in our home. I read it out loud to my husband and he also got teary. You are a wonderful writer and this is a very, very good post. I think it needs to be in a magazine. Or perhaps a book of essays. 🙂 Thank you for writing it and sharing it.

    ps I meant to tell Margie that it brought to mind one of my favorite Anne Tyler lines. It is in a novel about an entirely different kind of change, but contains that idea of leaving someone you love with different people in a different place:

    “This is a specific person, do you understand? Not just some [college student]. I want to make sure you realize that.”

  11. Hi Jason. I just returned to So Cal after leaving my daughter in Chicago. I have been struggling all weekend trying to make sense of the craziness going on inside my head and heart. I feel so conflicted. I am so very proud and happy for my daughter. She did great things to get herself to a University of this stature. She worked hard and put the homework time in. This is her payoff for that effort. So I am so very happy for her. This is exactly where she should be.

    But like you I can’t find the words to explain the pain, sadness and sheer heartbreak I am filled with. What kind of father leaves his 18 year old daughter 2,000 miles away? How could I be so selfish and just board a flight alone? Who is going to protect her everyday & night? That is suppose to me…or at least it has been my job for 18 years. Almost feels like I have been fired from a job I thought I was pretty darn good at for 18 years. No warning, just cut loose.

    How empty my house feels right now. I dread going upstairs. There is no way I can look at her room tonight. I am so sad for me and so ecstatic for her. She is creating her next chapter and it will be glorious. I just have to figure out how to just be her biggest raving fan.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts, feelings and words. It does help knowing I am not alone in this!

  12. OMG Robin, I will die if I get homesick messages and calls! omg! I will be destroying all clocks and calendars for the next four years when this will be my reality!

    Lucy is a lovely young woman and it sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders! I’m in the IT industry so if she sticks to that path her future will be so bright and fun! Sounds like she’ll have fun on any path!

  13. Well, I hate to say it, but we do live on a farm, our son moved a quarter of a mile down the road from us, and yep, comes to work for us every day. Yes we are blessed! Oh and I came here via Cathy’s blog too!

  14. What an amazing, heart wrenching post to read. You have truly captured what it feels like to all of us parents dropping off our college-aged kids.

  15. I live just in the Chicago suburbs, but my child does not want to come home at all and is adjusting just fine. We did meet one evening for a bite though and I brought some forgotten things. That was sure convenient!For me the most difficult adjustment is that I am divorced, still not used to it, and that in all my fantasies of a child going away to school we were always together as a couple moving stuff into a dorm together, sighing and talking about it afterwards, living through it together.(I did it all.) My point is that the future isn’t always what you expect it to be. We can only revel in the fact that our children are growing up and beginning to be adults and are starting adventures on their own. My parents let me cash in a return airline ticket when I was 19 and visiting out of state(across the country) when I impulsively decided to stay there. Two weeks later they shipped me boxes of clothes.(6 months later I was a resident and began college as an independent.) At the time I never wondered how it must have felt to them, especially since I was their baby! I only hope that I can handle my children’s decisions with as much grace and support as mine gave me. I wish they were still around and I could ask them about it!

  16. Just reading this now, two years after you wrote it. Made me laugh. Made me cry. Made me realize my parents probably had an emotional response to me going off to college that they didn’t share with me. (I had a lot on my mind already :)) This is a good story. And I would imagine Lucy would value it more than anyone else; or at least….she will….one day. You could probably write a whole book of stories to your kids.!! In your spare time 🙂

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