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The Exact Moment You See Childhood End
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.Published in Group Writing
Good write-up @dominiqueprynne. Just what a father of a young daughter needs to get his tears flowing in the morning!
Excellent and very touching. Thank you. True stories are the best.
Oh no, mine are 7 and 3, I don’t want to think about this. Thanks for the lovely post, though!
This conversation is part of a Group Writing series with the theme “Endings”, planned for the whole month of March. If you follow this link, there’s more information about Group Writing. The schedule is updated to include links to the other conversations for the month as they are posted. Dates for April’s topic (Water) are now available; sign up!
A lovely post.
I have gone through this three times, and it was just as hard each time.
All my kids experienced homesickness at one point or another. It’s a real thing.
I missed them terribly. I started living for the holidays. I’d start getting ready as soon as I got home.
And aren’t telephones and cell phones the greatest invention ever! :)
Egads! I have three more behind her.
Hmmm…I’m mixed on this. Yes, because there are always little contacts throughout the day or week. And no, for the exact same reason! :)
When my two oldest kids were in middle school, they left home to go on an exchange concert tour to Montreal, Canada. We worked for months to raise the money for the trip, and we had spent a month in extra rehearsals. There was so much excitement mixed in with the work. The day finally came for the kids to go. I was standing on the walk with two friends (my fellow moms), and one of the kids got out of the bus boarding line to hand her mom her teddy bear. Her mom said, “Okay, honey. I’ll take of care of him for you.” The bus filled up, the doors closed, we smiled and waved at the kids, and as the bus was leaving the school driveway, my friend with her daughter’s teddy bear had tears running down her cheeks. :)
That night, with both of my daughters gone, I didn’t know quite what to do with myself. Then the phone rang. My younger daughter had found a telephone in her host family’s house and had called me. I was so happy to hear her voice, to know she and her sister were okay, and I have loved Alexander Graham Bell ever since!
Well said! (much applause here)
It’s hard for me to think of a single defining moment when our girls’ childhoods ended. Was it when they started dating? Not sure. (Aside; Here’s a tip for you dads. When your daughter goes on a first date with a boy, make sure the young lady tells her date “By the way, I really need to get home on time. My dad is a gun nut.” Works like a champ!)
Was it when they started driving? We had make to make them drive. They weren’t interested at first, but then they saw the freedom mobility provides: work, friends, dating . . . you name it. It’s a life skill like swimming and riding a bike. But no, this isn’t the moment.
I guess it’s a continuum of doing one adult thing after the other. Moving out to go to college is definitely a biggie. What about moving away from home for good after getting that job? I guess I’m leaning towards a definition of “When each child becomes self-supporting”. Our family is still getting there.
How about a related question: When did you adults out there feel like you finally grew up? I didn’t feel like my childhood ended until my wife and I adopted our three daughters. I was 41 at the time. Then again, the definition of a Good Ole Boy is a middle-aged teenager . . .
What a lovely post, Dominique. You got my waterworks going, in part because I am going through the same thing. My wife and daughter recently attended an orientation weekend at Tulane in New Orleans – far from our home in northern New Jersey.
It really is amazing how technology has changed the connection between parent and child. I traveled to Spain in high school and didn’t communicate with my parents (except by sending a postcard) until I got back. My daughter traveled there recently, and we were able to communicate by text at any time. When I was in college in the early ’80s, telephone calls home were few and far between – but it’s interesting how they did always seem to occur whenever the money was running low. I suppose I’ll be receiving poverty-pleading texts starting in Fall 2017.
Best of luck to your daughter. She will, of course, adjust to her new surroundings almost immediately.
Heh. Dropping children off at a college is cause for celebration, not tears! Here’s a parental pat on the back for you!
They don’t necessarily see it that way, though. My middle child was somewhat distraught at my giddiness. (-:
Awww, so familiar! My daughter was class of 2016; you won’t believe how fast those 4 years go by!
I think it’s because the awful tension of the admissions process elongates the previous 6 months to an eternity of anxiety. Good luck to you both!
Loved the story. I may well be taking that trip in the opposite direction this summer, from the Austin area to UT-Dallas with my son.