The wisest parenting advice I have ever heard or read, the source of which I have forgotten, is that one's goal as a parent is not to raise children, but to raise adults. "Success" as a parent is achieved when your child leaves the nest and is able to confidently fly away under the power of their own wings, rather than plunging dramatically to earth or timidly returning to the nest for more nurturing.
My wife and I have raised both our kids with the goal that they would be prepared to confidently go away to college and thrive there when the time came. The focus of our energy and our resources for the past 21 years has been on this moment. We knew it was coming. Yet when we gave our son one last good-bye hug in the shadow of Harris Hall at Bucknell University, the moment still hit us like a sledge hammer.
You might think that having been through this with our daughter three Augusts ago it would be easier. You would be wrong.
Our boy has gone away to college.
We are incredibly proud of him. Bucknell is a wonderful university. It has been called a "Hidden Ivy" by some, and it offers him a world-class education and a superb collegiate experience. His ability to gain admission is a testament to the years of hard work he invested in high school. Even Uncle Sam agrees, as they awarded Luke an Army R.O.T.C. scholarship which will pay for most of his education and enable him to chase his dream of serving America as an officer in the U.S. Army. That's a win-win.
Bucknell is not terribly sentimental about the move-in process. The dorm is open at 8:00 a.m., and you have until about 1:30 p.m. to get done what you need to get done before the students and parents are called away to separate information sessions, and the parents are politely informed that they are expected to hit the road by 5:00 p.m. In the limited time available you need to arrange the furniture (i.e., loft the beds) so that three 18 year-old boys can live, sleep, study, watch football, and play video games in a space that was originally designed to house two students. Three duffel bags of clothes need to be hung neatly on hangars, organized by function and color (it's a Mom thing). A lifetime supply of pens, pencils, highlighters, spiral notebooks, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, Advil, Claritin, and laundry soap need to be organized in the desk drawers and closet. Multiple runs to WalMart and Bed, Bath & Beyond need to be made for items that that wouldn't fit into the duffel bags (futon sofa, Golfish crackers, cases of water bottles, window screens, desk lamps, oscillating fans, extension cords). A computer has to be picked up at the I.T. Help Desk. A visit needs to be paid to the Catholic Campus Ministry to meet Father Fred. A local bank account has to be opened.
It all goes by in a blur. But through the blur you meet the roommates from New Jersey and Massachusetts and they are clearly really good kids with really good families. You see your son walking confidently and comfortably around campus, saying hello to the guys and the very cute girls he has met and knows by name already. You see the excitement in his face when he gets his class schedule and pronounces that it is "awesome," despite the 8:00 a.m. start most days.
And then, suddenly, it's 4:30. The desk drawers are organized, the duffel bags are empty. The bed is made. The roommates are assembling the new WalMart futon sofa. And its time to say good-bye to your son. Not for good. Not forever. He'll be home at Thanksgiving, and for Christmas. But he won't ever be back home again for long. The Army will have plans for big chunks of his summers. And once he graduates and pins those gold bars on his shoulders, he'll be sent wherever our nation needs him. It isn't good-bye forever. It just feels that way.
He walks you out to the car, so you don't have to do this in front of the roommates. Everyone is choked up, and the first tears come. For everyone. He hugs his mom. And he looks you straight in the eye. Has he gotten taller? You wish him luck, tell him how proud you are of him. You hug him and tell him you love him. He says I love you too, and that he misses you (already). And then he's gone, back into Harris Hall, without you.
You don't know what else to do. You didn't get any lunch, so before long you're staring through your tears at the menu at the Applebees in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, trying not to make a fool of yourself.
The emotions of the past several days are a powerful mix. My wife and I are extremely proud of Luke, and we are so incredibly happy that he is where he should be - at a great University, surrounded by great kids, having the time of his life and getting a great education. We wouldn't have it any other way.
But we sure do miss him. I find myself regretting the things we didn't do together before he was all grown up. I should have taken him camping a few more times. Gone for bike rides with him on those nights when he asked but I said I was too tired. Played more games of catch. Figured out a way to take him to a San Diego Chargers game or a Zac Brown Band concert. But you only get so many days to try to fit it all in, and I guess we must have somehow done enough. Despite the inevitable regrets, Luke's an intelligent young man, with a great work ethic and a terrific sense of humor. He has a strong sense of honor and integrity. He's a patriot and a gentleman. He'll make a fine Army officer and be a wonderful husband and father when his time comes.
Karen and I got home late last night. The house is 2600 square feet of suburban silence. Luke's bed is unmade. He never was one for making beds, and we left home for Pennsylvania at 4:00 in the morning. A green '98 Ford Explorer is parked out front, with a Bucknell decal in the rear window, but no one to drive it. I saw two mushrooms in the back yard this morning, but on second look they were two lacrosse balls waiting for a game of catch. We have been looking forward to this day for a long time, but that doesn't mean we were really ready for it. We look forward to our future as just a couple again, but it's also going to take some getting used to.
In the mean time, we now have another favorite college sports team to root for in addition to the Fighting Irish. Go Bison!
’Ray Bucknell, ’Ray Bucknell,
’Ray for the Orange and the Blue,
’Ray, ’Ray, ’Ray, ’Ray,
’Ray for the Orange and the Blue