This morning I returned our oldest son to college, where he will begin his third year as an Elementary Education major. Two years ago I experienced a great deal of heartache and pain at his departure from our home to college. I felt his absence deeply, more deeply than I thought possible. Last year, returning him for his second year, I experienced a sense of loss, but it was much more tempered and didn't result in hours of grief on my part. This year, the third time I've now done this, I'm glad to report that it feels just the way it's supposed to be.
Because Kyle has (wisely, in my opinion) decided to forego the purchase of a car until a later date, transportation to and from college is in one of two ways: his friends or his parents (usually his father). This summer we are two-and-a-half hours closer to his college, so I wondered if he would be finding a ride with a friend. But several weeks ago he asked if we would bring him back to college again this year. Claudia and I agreed that this would be possible, and so we put the date on the calendar. Because of some job training Kyle needed to be back about ten days earlier than his fellow collegians, so I was disappointed his summer with us would be cut short, but I understood the reason why.
A week or so ago he queried, "So, dad, are we going to be going back to college like we always do?" I smiled to myself, since two previous times now constitutes "always." I said, "What do you mean?" "You know. We drive up there, unload my stuff, see a movie, get something to eat, shop at Target for the things I'll need, and then we call it a day?" I told him the plan sounded good to me. There are, after all, some traditions that are meaningful enough to maintain. This is one of them. I can't really imagine Kyle going to college in August without his being accompanied by a parent. And I'm not sure Kyle imagines going back to college in August without a parent, either. For someone as independent and self-sufficient as Kyle has been all his life, this to me marks positive change. Each year he seems more human and relaxed about life, and this is a momentous thing.
Kyle came marching into our life over eight years ago, a parentified, in-charge, take-control eleven-year-old. He was accustomed to telling adult caretakers in his life what he would and wouldn't do; he was used to calling the shots and making the decisions that affected his life. He didn't trust anyone beyond himself, although he had learned how to use people to his advantage. The early years were difficult ones, but we stayed close to Kyle. I was optimistic and determined that my presence would make a difference in his life, although for years I have struggled to believe that it has mattered much. There has been enough residual conflict and disagreement over the years to make me doubt my earlier work and commitment. Surely, I convinced myself, Kyle would have turned out about the same without my presence in his life. He could have found ways to get what he wanted in order to procure a college education whether he had a loving parent or not.
I am not so inclined to believe that any longer. I am beginning to see that perhaps it is precisely because he has had a very committed father, continually nipping at his heels, refusing to let go completely and steadfastly believing God was in this whole enterprise, that Kyle is becoming the young adult he is.
I had today one of the best days I have had in many months, maybe years. As a melancholy, moody, introverted, self-loathing person, this is not a declaration I make lightly. But today has been a good day.
On the way to Bethel University we talked about his early years of life; I shared with him (as I often have in those moments) the little information I have about his birth parents and origins. I reminded him again of the importance of staying free of alcohol or other chemicals because his family history is so strongly predisposed to addiction. I told him how very proud I am of him that he has been able to move beyond his early challenges to pursue a college education. I envisioned with him a day when he, too, will marry and have children, and how his children will be the first in multiple generations in his birth family to have a normal, happy, healthy life. He didn't say much, but his eyes appeared a bit misty as I recounted and as he listened to the past eight years of his life with us. I shared with him my expectations and we agreed that this year we didn't need to have a written agreement as to lifestyle expectations. "I think I'm pretty good with that now, Dad," was his response. "I've got it figured out, and I don't want to go through the ordeal of my freshman year again," he said, referring to several less-than-our-family expectations he violated in those first nascent months as a first-time college student away from home.
By the time we dropped off his stuff, eaten lunch, seen a movie together, picked up his food and other supplies at Target, I was ready to let him go again. I miss him already, but the pain I feel is not my previous insecurity about whether or not Kyle will forget us at college and never want to return home again. It is a pleasant pain, the pain of knowing that because I have done a good job as a father my son will do what he needs to do and absent himself for another year of college and growth as a young adult. It could be, I remind myself, a completely different kind of pain. It could be the pain of visiting him in prison, or of watching him self-destruct by using chemicals and experiencing joblessness. It could be the pain of regret that I gave up years ago and just let him do whatever he damn-well pleased. But tonight I feel the pleasant pain that a loving parent feels for a young adult son. He's doing what he needs to do. I'm doing what I need to do. And it's just the way it's supposed to be.