Independence Day, 2016
For parents, the oldest kid is the experimental one. Just like learning any skill set, successes and failures are applied forward, to younger brothers and sisters. So it is with our oldest, Audrey. But the parental inexperience and missteps are balanced out because she has also been the beneficiary of an enthusiasm the younger kids haven’t quite received. Without intending it, we have celebrated her milestones more intensely, all the firsts—schools, dances, jobs, dates. The burden and the benefit being first born.
This year we reached maybe the biggest milestone yet—she went off to college. As exciting as it was, it was also fraught with all kinds of life reckonings, especially having to do with the sense of time itself. Normally camouflaged by routine, time seemed more tangible and finite. I found myself reflecting back on all those busy, chaotic days of her childhood that seemed like they would never end, a rush of days and years spooling in one continuous ribbon—the friends, and sleepovers and camps; the games and bike rides and beach trips. That quiet kid with the strawberry blonde hair, precocious on grainy camcorder footage; that soccer player in a red uniform tearing down the field with a gangly cluster of teammates; that little girl in the plaid skirt walking to school with what seemed like an enormous backpack.
We filled photo albums with her pictures as if the act of photography might somehow stop time. Those days seemed like they would not end...until they did come to an end. Looking back now I can trace a long sequence of small moments, mostly unnoticed, that ramped up to this transition. But there were a few times, more recently, when we did begin to grasp the fleeting nature of our own family enterprise:
We filled photo albums with her pictures as if the act of photography might somehow stop time. Those days seemed like they would not end...until they did come to an end.
At Audrey’s high school freshman welcome they played the pop song “Home,” apparently one of the big songs of the moment. A long line of St. Francis freshmen girls streamed into the gym and this song was playing loud--it was a high energy, lump in your throat moment, all these girls so nervous and excited, and the optimism of the song, and the parents picking out their daughters in the procession and waving to them. Some of the girls waved back and a lot of them were self conscious and embarrassed. Audrey didn’t look at us, and then at the last instant gave us a brief, wry half smile and turned away toward her friends. I kept thinking about how life was opening up for these girls, and we parents, who’ve loved them and nurtured them all these years were now standing aside a little bit and letting the girls walk out bravely into their next chapter. I’m not a raw-raw school spirit guy, but this was a powerful moment for me.
Meg and I sat out in the backyard one evening in mid August, and she just started crying. She was having a little breakdown about Audrey’s upcoming departure for college. All she could say through her tears was “it was all so quick.” The realization that Audrey’s childhood and her time living with us was really so short. This practical woman was caught up in some kind of omniscient moment, looking down on her own life from above.
When the kids were young, older parents warned us. “Enjoy this time,” they said, “because it goes so fast.” We understood in a cliched, theoretical way—which turns out to be a very different thing than watching your oldest kid pack up her room into boxes.
I didn’t try to explain logically why it would be OK, as I might have done in earlier times. I’ve learned in years of marriage that emotional stuff just has to run its course. I mentioned an old song that had come up on the shuffle earlier in the week, and how coincidental I thought it was. So we put on Independence Day off Bruce Springsteen’s River album. The slow piano and somber lyrics cut right to the heart of that moment, and spoke to inevitable things with kids and families. “Say goodbye, it’s independence day” the chorus went, over and over again in the half darkness.
A kid going off to school is a happy occasion, but on that night, we just needed a little time to process things and to come to terms with our new reality.
We dropped Audrey off at the University of San Francisco, out near Golden Gate Park. It was a chaotic move-in scene, a mob of other families who looked like gypsies lugging lamps, pillows, bins, and other sundries of dorm life. Just beneath the pleasantries of this big occasion you could detect a touch of parental competition. Who would get the bottom bunk? The prime classes? The cool friends? We met her roommates and their parents. We attended the well meaning, instructive orientation events, capped off by a final Sunday morning brunch. All the while, unbeknownst to each other, Meg and I were rehearsing to ourselves what we would say to Audrey when we parted. Those last words to leave her with. Editing ourselves: not too profound or heavy...loving, but keep it light. Something she might remember.
On Sunday after brunch we took her and her roommate out to Target, where we bought them a dorm fridge. We tried not to think of what kind of wicked alcoholic beverages might grace this appliance. Still rehearsing our lines. And then we pulled up to the dorm and popped the trunk. There was a line of cars waiting behind us. This was it, the moment. But there was no time for the goodbye we had rehearsed. No time for profound final words. Hugs and rushed goodbyes. The girls were excited to set up their room. They hurried away with their large box, and we pulled out into traffic. She was on her own.
But there was no time for the goodbye we had rehearsed. No time for profound final words. Hugs and rushed goodbyes. The girls were excited to set up their room. They hurried away with their large box, and we pulled out into traffic. She was on her own.
Three little memories shared here that chronicle a teenager’s emerging independence. Things change so gradually you don’t even notice what’s happening right in front of you. And then you find yourself trying to make sense of it, scribbling down memories in notebooks. A kid flies the nest, and parents have to adapt. Adaptation seems like this primordial, reptilian thing. But in this matter it is solitary and internal, as mundane as getting used to one fewer kid at the dinner table, and a household that is a little quieter. Eventually we will grow comfortable with the leap of faith that our sweet girl is now making her way across the wide, beautiful arc of her own future.
That card with the Thoreau quote on it that I gave Audrey years ago still hangs in her empty room. It says “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
Eventually we will grow comfortable with the leap of faith that our sweet little girl is now making her way across the wide, beautiful arc of her own future.
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