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Senior Year: The Hardest Goodbye

After graduation, a new place will, and should, beckon. It is not until the final return to college, that our children really leave home. (AP Photo)
After graduation, a new place will, and should, beckon. It is not until the final return to college, that our children really leave home. (AP Photo)

It is different, this last time. The young woman we drive to college for her senior year bears little resemblance to the reticent freshman we had to pry from the car four short years ago.

She sleeps the sleep of the contented, not the damned, on this last 13-hour drive west, the rear windshield of the rented SUV obscured by her battered mini-fridge, microwave and the good down pillow she pilfered from our bed.

The misty eyes are ours, not hers, as we unload the duffle bags and under-bed storage bins for her final year on a bucolic campus that is as much home to her now as the beloved suburban block she had been so reluctant to leave as a newly-minted high school graduate.

Four years in, there’s no question that her stuffed rabbit will be making the drive. This time, though, we know the journey will not be a round-trip.

Her tears will come in May.

No more for us the anxiety now unfolding in our neighbors’ house down the street as they pack up their youngest for her first year at college: Does she really need that many sweatshirts? (No.) Will she like her roommate? (Probably not.) Is she really taking that threadbare Barney the dinosaur? (Of course.) Will she survive? (Absolutely.)

Four years in, there is no question in our house that the stuffed rabbit she calls “Bunny-Sleeping-in-the-Bed” will be making the drive. This time, though, we know the journey will not be a round-trip. The uncertain economy notwithstanding, after graduation, a new place will, and should, beckon. Her brothers’ experience has prepared us for what first-time parents of freshmen don’t yet know. It is not until this, the final return to college, that our children really leave home.

We saw it coming this summer, this latest in the long line of transitions we have shared since we brought her home from Brigham & Women’s to two wary older brothers 21 years ago. A new reading companion on the deck had replaced the skinny girl calling “rate my dive” from the lakeside dock at intervals so regular and insistent that she rendered “summer reading” an oxymoron in our house for a decade. The competent cook at the stove making vegetarian quesadillas had shoved aside the schoolgirl who endured years of teasing for her unvarying midday meal of peanut butter and jelly.

We see it even more clearly now as we step out onto her college town’s quaint Main Street and squeals of “Katie” erupt from the doorway of the bookstore and a table at the outdoor café. When her friends join us for dinner, we revel in our place on the periphery of the conversation, so unlike four years ago when we peppered her dorm-mates with questions in the hope she would connect with someone before we drove away. Now, we are happy to pick up the check after enjoying the chance to eavesdrop for a moment on her life, on her friends’ tales of summer house-sitting and semesters abroad, all unimaginable to her only four years ago.

She is not the same Katie she was then. She knows where the shampoo aisle is in the local Wal-Mart. And where the beer is, too. Not like the first time when she worried how she would find the store again without us, or how she would handle campus parties without the comfort of a curfew. This time, she will be the one leading an orientation discussion on “Beer and Sex” for incoming freshmen, as nervous now as she was then.

We have changed, too. We carry the new sheets up to her second-floor double, but we resist the temptation to make her bed or to suggest a more efficient arrangement of furniture. Katie has grown in kindness, as well as confidence, these last four years. She smiles gently at our obvious self-restraint, a smile that says, “Not to worry, Guys. I’ve got this.”

This program aired on August 28, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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