A Child Leaves for College

It's not just children who feel butterflies in their stomachs at the start of the school year. Parents mark their own rites of passage . Over the weekend, writer Joan Wickersham's son Thomas left for his freshman year of college. She says it was a bittersweet reminder of just how fast life goes by:

"When my son was six months old, I started taking him to the playground in our neighborhood. He wasn't old enough to do anything there: he couldn't dig in the sand, or slide down the slide, or sit up steadily in a swing. We just kind of hung out. I was in love with my baby but baffled by the long, boring days of his babyhood. Life seemed to be at a standstill. I wanted it to go faster. I wanted my son to play with toys, to speak in sentences, to care passionately about his Halloween costume. I wanted him to be capable of laughter. Like the twelve-year-olds running around on the playground basketball court. Or the three-year-old whose father pushed her higher and higher in one of the playground swings, saying, "So, do you have whiplash yet, Margaret? Do you have whiplash yet?"

I complained to my mother about the boredom. She said, "Enjoy this time. It goes so fast." I said, "What are you talking about?"

Well, guess what. Time passed. My son was a cat for Halloween; then a pirate; and then a tall teenager in civilian clothes, escorting his younger brother trick-or-treating. He spoke in sentences; then he read the Narnia books; then he read Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski.

He played with toys; then he played with his friends; then he had a girlfriend. His metal soldiers waged battles and fell dead on the floor of his room; then he was a senior in high school and a friend of his died in a car crash.

Time passed. Things happened. We were able to protect him some of the time, but not all the time. We knew some of what happened to him, but not everything. His life, which for so long had unfurled before our eyes, belonged to him and became private.

Time passed. Now he is leaving home; we are about to drive him to college. We're also helping my mother move into a nursing home. She is eighty, paralyzed and frail. She needs me to sort through her things — her letters, her drawers. She is losing her privacy and her independence.

I've had a sense occasionally, this summer, of seeing life whole. Of standing on a high place and looking at birth and death, and seeing that the whole thing takes forever and happens in a flash. My son will go to college, and then get a job, and perhaps marry and have children. I'll be a grandmother telling him to cherish the time when his children are young. My mother won't be here.

I go for walks in my neighborhood, and the playground is full of young parents pushing their kids in the swings. Those parents were twelve when my son was a baby; they were running around on the basketball court, laughing.

And I find I'm wondering where Margaret is, and if she has whiplash yet."


Writer Joan Wickersham's son Thomas left for his freshman year of college

This program aired on September 5, 2006. The audio for this program is not available.


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