Posted: Sep 07, 2001 12:00 AM
On the way up the car lumbered along close to the ground - stuffed with books and clothes and blankets, a file cabinet and a lamp and a chair. Tucked somewhere was the cassette player, and stashed somewhere else the lacrosse stick - and under everything, of course, the barbells. It was a car filled with the paraphernalia of youth, the necessities of education away. It contained, as well, determined gaiety. Once there and the car unloaded, resettlement began. I had received a good deal of advice from seasoned experts regarding what to do at this juncture, but none of it helped. One battle-scarred veteran of taking children to school had told this raw recruit: "Get all the things into his room, and get out of there fast." But it was not to be - not this time, not with the first-born. A mother has to putter and potter and rearrange, to position the posters and reconfigure the furniture, to measure and write lists. She has to put clothes in drawers and on hangers. She has to make his bed and teach him about hospital corners and show him how to get the pillow into the case. A father has to utter profound observations, to pass along subtle insights, to offer reasonable recommendations. He has to confirm and reconfirm the wisdom of it all. He has to recollect the way things used to be and the ways they are similar or different now. He has to issue reminders. And he has to go over one last time how to use the checkbook and reverse the charges. A son enduring all this - finding himself in this spider web of force fields - will be forgiven a sense of confused exasperation. He has lived the dreams of his childhood's time. Confronting the door to the adult world - to all this new independence and responsibility - he is a study in puzzled innocence. "Why venture through?" he asks himself. Why invite upon his mind and body the blows that will prove his being? Is this a necessary ritual? Are the other new students, with their uncertain smiles and searching eyes, telling him they have the same questions - indeed, the same types of parents? Out of tears and out of advice - out of excuses for postponement deriving from what Conrad called "the fear of finality that lurks in every human breast" - we left. We long had foreseen this distant eventuality; now here it was. Without him the car seemed so ... so empty. We held hands, she and I, and snuffled and blubbered toward home. "I hate good-byes," she said. "Don't you?" I nodded. And the white-dashed lane dividers rolled under the car at their regular 59-miles-per-hour intervals, but they were blurred. We thought him through his orientation schedule. There were lots of lumpy "I wonder if he'll remembers" and "Do you think he wills." Yet gradually, in the tacit way feeling becomes stronger than thought, we came to understand that we wouldn't have had it any other way. Parents seek (or should) to instill the value of heritage, the honor of country, the goodness of family. They try to teach the child to laugh but to feel no shame in tears, to find joy in both company and solitude, to have integrity and ambition and judgment, to be gentle with the gentle and tough with the tough. They invest him with many hopes - not least that he always will have fair winds and following seas, yet (and having helped him learn to bear pain) knowing he will not. Part of growing up is revealing oneself; part of it is accepting the sad discovery of the adult world - that one doesn't always do what he wants but what he must. In his own time, he will find his own path. Along the way parents are lucky to have the assistance of schools that take him seriously, that stretch his mind and spirit - and that thereby help him grow into the strongest man he might become. The moment arrives when he must be off. And parents, having done all they could, are left with the answers that only faith can provide. Friends assure them that time does indeed prove itself to be the true narcotic of pain, the ultimate easer of ache. Yet separation never is easy. As Adlai Stevenson said, "It hurts too much to laugh and I'm too old to cry." Too old almost - until we reach home and I go into his empty room, and see in my mind's eye the little boy who was ... ...Young and easy under the apple boughs About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green... In the sun that is young once only.