Thirty years ago my mother drove me to Swarthmore College for orientation. I remember feeling completely at sea — eager to get started at the same time that I had absolutely no idea what it meant to get started. Later this week, I will drop my oldest son, Emerson, at Muhlenberg College. Like me, he seems eager to get started. Like me, he seems to not know what that means.
The beginning of college felt (for me) different than any other beginning. It was the first time that my sense of home shifted — by my senior year, I thought of college as home. And, still, when I return to Swarthmore, the feeling of being physically present there is the feeling of returning to a place I loved living.
So, as I watch Emerson get ready, I think of Muhlenberg’s beautiful campus someday being like that for him. But I remember too that when we parked my mother’s Saab behind the Wharton dormitory (so I could get my stuff out of the car and into Dana) it did not feel at all like I was arriving at home. It felt like I was stepping off a cliff and, in some ways, as if time were pushing me off that cliff.
But I had things I needed. Laundry detergent (though not laundry proficiency); clothes for changing weather; a swim suit (for the mandatory swim test); my typewriter (it was 30 years ago); and some critical books — Cheever’s stories, E.B. White’s essays, and one of the many copies of Death in Venice that my mother had given me across time. I also had the memory of taking leave from friends and siblings and the sense of great possibility. In retrospect, it was wonderful; at the time, it was terrifying.
Now, I am trying to help Emerson gather things. He has detergent and proficiency. He has his computer. He has (as of yesterday) a rain coat. For some reason, last week it seemed essential to me that he have one. He disagreed. He has one now. It is my prerogative as his parent to make sure he has one. At least that’s true now. He is going to see friends and say goodbye over the next week. We are going to take him to dinner. And then next week he’ll hug me and I will get in the car and drive back from Pennsylvania.
And once he is alone, he’ll see if we’ve assembled the right things. He’ll learn whether the raincoat matters. He’ll face his classes and his classmates and the campus and the professors and the weather and he will make his way. And as he does, he will dig into the things he has packed with him — clothes, shoes, detergent — and he will use them to find his way.
So, I worry. But I realize as I write this that I am not worried about the things. There is a CVS near the campus. There is the internet and FedEx. Getting things to him as he makes his way is not an insurmountable problem. I realize that I am worried about whether I have done my job as a father. Have I given him the tools he needs to make good (not perfect) decisions? Have our conversations taught him how to ask questions that unlock meaning? Does he understand the possibilities offered by every new book? Will he, as an actor (because he is one), make the space necessary to prepare? Does he know how much he matters and will he value and protect himself?
I am making a note right now to make extra sure to tell him this week how much he matters. I am going to endure his bemused looks as I tell him that I love him. I am going to let him make fun of me for reminding him that he is going to have to get up early for class, but I am going to remind him.
I am going to do all of this even though it is transparent to me that none of it matters. My son is a young man. He has the tools he needs to succeed. Some of who he is may have something to do with my parenting. At the same time, there are ways in which I have failed him. There will be times when he is faced with choices that matter and find that he has no clear answer one way or another; that it is a choice for which he is not prepared. And so he will choose. Some of those choices will be good; some won’t. That’s how we learn.
The one thing, though, that I am confident he knows (and knows now even before he reads what comes next) is that he is loved. He is loved whatever he chooses and however he does. As he looks for his place at Muhlenberg — as he makes it is home — his place here, in our home, is never in doubt. It has been a great privilege to watch him grow. I am endlessly proud of him.
And there is this too — I will miss him very much. But I look forward to welcoming him home again and again across the wonderful expanse of time.