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I made Her drive in the big city traffic. She clutched the steering wheel with a tremorous grip. Eighteen wheelers, concrete construction barriers, multiple intersecting exchanges and wild, near-suicidal road hogs confronted Her. I myself was clutching the side armrest with my own death grip, feet pushing into the floorboard on the passenger side. The drive down the infamous Texas traffic artery that is called I-35 seemed to be taking years off my life.
I had to do it, I had to make Her drive. In a paltry six weeks, She would be on her own, hours and hours from home, in a strange town, embarking on this decidedly Americanized version of a higher education adventure known as “college”. The only road back home, the only way to return to the embrace of her hometown and the family in it, ran through some of the snarliest traffic in Texas. She had to get the skill and, more importantly, the confidence, to take on the drive.
I found myself holding my breath as we navigated through a particularly narrow gauntlet of construction barriers, flanked by a double tractor trailer rig. Unconsciously, I released my breath the instant I spied our temporary refuge from the transit turmoil. The full moon sign containing the buck-toothed Buc-ees beaver mascot rose ahead, on the next exit of the interstate. She wheeled into the mega-gas station, a favorite Texas institution of ours, parked and turned off the car. She deliberately released her grip on the wheel, gulped in a deep breath, and said “Mom, I’m done. You can drive the rest of the way.”
As I walked in to Buc-ees beside her, I couldn’t help but think of the big changes ahead. We were headed to a summer weekend of Freshman Orientation at Texas State University. Texas State boasts a student enrollment of nearly forty thousand and is located just south of Austin, smack in the middle of the idyllic Hill Country of Texas. I was sending my daughter from her hometown of about the same population as Texas State, to a college campus full of strangers. The weekend orientation was making it feel all too real and imminent.
We had already been on the road several hours when we stopped at Buc-ees. Our discussions had ranged from dorm room decor to her hometown boyfriend to campus politics to Greek life to financial management, and about a thousand other things. I tried to let her lead the conversation and let it flow naturally, but I always slipped in some parenting if I could. Don’t apply for credit card in exchange for a free t-shirt … Don’t shower if you are sexually assaulted … find the off-campus bookstore, it’s cheaper … do be open to new friends … don’t assume everyone was raised with your same mores and expectations as you … don’t eat out all the time, you’ll overspend … find classmates who are serious about school, they will keep you track … think for yourself and don’t blindly accept your professor’s’ point of view, etc. It seemed after 18 years, there was still so much to convey and time … well, time was up.
Despite my heavy thoughts, as we stepped inside Buc-ees, She squealed with delight when She spied the Icee Bar in the store. Four machines, four different Icee flavors each including Her favorite, Green Apple. We grabbed big Icee cups and went to town making mixed combos – Green Apple and Strawberry for her and Watermelon and Lemon-lime for me. We laughed about how jealous her younger brother your be if he knew he was missing out on the Icee buffet! I thought about this simple pleasure and this simple moment and wanted to extend it on and on.
But we were on a timeline and we still had two hours of road time ahead. We left Buc-ees, refreshed and refueled, and without any more discussion about it, I slipped into the driver’s seat, and prepared to battle my way down I-35 through Austin to San Marcos, home of Texas State.
We arrived at Texas State for orientation. The first stop was the dorm where she would spend the weekend with other incoming freshman. The weekend counselors, upperclassman at the university, were welcoming and friendly, and I could not help but notice the young men ogling my daughter with sly, sideways glances. Deep breath … She will be ok. The next stop was the ballroom at the Student Union where various information sessions were held … some for students, some for anxious parents, some joint. After each student session, she would find me, sit with me and tell me all about it. Finally, the day was winding down. Dinner was on our own and then She was to report back to the Student Union to begin “Cat Camp”, the student-led, students-only portion of the weekend.
We went off campus for dinner and ate at local Mexican food joint. We discussed the day over chips, salsa and fajita nachos. While She didn’t come right out and say it, She was nervous. She asked me for the tenth time about where I would be over the next 48 hours since there were no more parent obligations until Sunday afternoon. I assured her I was staying in San Marcos. Truthfully, I had considered spending my weekend in Austin or San Antonio visiting friends, shopping etc, but I decided to scrap those plans and just stay in town to ease her mind.
We drove back over to the Union. Before going in, I asked for a picture. She agreed. A quick snap in the parking lot and then we walked together into the building. The energy in the building had definitely changed from earlier in the day. No longer was it the flat energy of information sessions on financial aid, housing and advising, but it was now the expectant energy of youth who were anticipating freedom from parents and adults. In fact, I did not see any other parents at this point. The only “adults” were the just-the-other-side-of-college counselors and student life administrators. Her orientation group was to meet in a room downstairs from the ballroom.
As we reached the top of the stairs and looked down to the bottom floor where her assigned room was located, I stopped and told her it was time for me to go and she just needed to head downstairs to Room 106 and check in. I had expected her to give me a quick hug and bound down the stairs. Instead, she recoiled, with tears in her eyes and asked me to walk down stairs with her and help her find the right room.
I had a flashback to Kindergarten. How had this happened so fast? She and I both knew we were on the precipice of a change from which we would never come back. We both knew that in this moment, she was pivoting into adulthood. Her tears flowed. I smiled, I hugged her tight and told her that she needed to journey down the stairs on her own. I told her I loved her, I was proud of her and that she was so capable of this journey by herself. I reminded her that new experiences, new friends and an exponentially bigger world awaited her.
She still shed silent tears. I assured her I would always, always be there to call upon if needed. I held Her tight, cramming an eternity into that embrace. She finally pulled back, nodded her head in acknowledgment. She dabbed her eyes, (asked me if her mascara had run … no), squared Her shoulders and stepped deliberately down the stairs. She didn’t look back. Now it was my turn to let the silent tears flow.