Thursday, September 15, 1987
Jennifer, circa 1989
Photo by Ross Watson
Passages: The Long Good-bye
© 1988 John Dallas Bowers
The final moments would have triggered tears in the most manly of fathers. Here she was, our only child, anticipating the liberation of college but sensing at the same time our pain of separation.
"Dad," she said, snuggling close with an arm around my waist, "you and Mom have been wonderful. I’m starting to realize the depth of your love and parental commitment. I see the sacrifices you’ve made and the wisdom you’ve used in bringing me to this point in my life.
"I’ll miss you terribly, but I promise to apply myself and get the most from the investment you’ve made in my future. I love you."
In my dreams. What Jennifer actually said after Susan and I had spent fifteen hours driving her down to Vanderbilt and half a day organizing her air conditioned dorm room, was somewhat more concise: "See ya’."
Now it isn’t every teenager who could have sifted through the rich complexities of emotions she must have felt and come up with just the right words of farewell, those she knew would comfort an anxious father and a mother who could hear another door closing.
Of course, if the truth were told, I don’t remember being much more expansive when Dad took me to Lafayette twenty-eight years ago. Maybe Jennifer comes by it honestly after all.
It was an interesting experience, though, packing our excited freshman off to school. She had spent the summer at the beach with her mom, working, sunning, and surfing. A week before we were due in Nashville, the two of them blitzed the malls, putting stress fractures in our charge cards. She was going to a campus where material standards matched scholarship, and she wanted to be ready.
Although I willed myself out of the procurement process, the evidence was clear enough as I set out to pack the car: a long rack of dresses, a camp trunk and large valise straining at their hinges, plastic trash bags filled with sweaters, enough appliances to stock a Macy’s sale, and an inventory of shoes the like of which was last seen in Imelda Marcos' closet.
Susan sensed my silent question as I pushed and pulled and tied down everything in sight. "Girls require more things than boys." Try to find sexual equality when you really need it.
The drive to Nashville that Friday was uneventful and as enjoyable as staring down any thousand miles of interstate concrete could be. Realizing early I had the most room in the car, I insisted on doing all the driving. That way, I was able to minimize my discomfort and still maintain my role as family martyr.
Saturday, the day of metamorphosis, dawned bright and hot. To its everlasting credit, Vanderbilt has devised a system of assistance in which upperclassmen volunteer their brawn and good humor, carrying anything you’ll let them to your student’s new home-away-from-home. For us, that meant a cheerful dynamo who matched me trip-for-trip up those four very long flights of stairs. He was marvelous.
Susan and Jennifer shouldered the task of turning the small single into a very nice place to live. I had to smile when, after several hours, I was able to compare these quarters to the rather Spartan freshman digs I had at Lafayette (I remember a bed and desk). Personal telephone, toaster oven, stereo/twin tape deck/CD player, matching linens and drapes. The only thing missing was a refrigerator/freezer. She had to wait until the following week to get that.
But our time was drawing to a close. Our daughter had places to go and people to meet. Parents did not figure in that process. Before we knew it, we were back at the Hampton Inn with Susan echoing Peggy Lee’s plaintive question, "Is that all there is?"
We decided it wasn’t. Susan was determined to get a less distracted and more heartfelt farewell, so at nine the next morning, we returned to the dorm. I felt double-teaming Jennifer at that hour would have been unfair, so I stayed in the car and watched other parents play out their version of the long good-bye.
Picking their way around the mountains of empty cartons in the parking lot, these disparate men and women had one thing in common: the need to tag up one more time before leaving for home. One more kiss, one more hug, one more piece of advice for the eightieth time. I just sat in the front seat and smiled. It was bittersweet.
Susan returned to the car no happier for her loss but somewhat more at peace. We knew Jennifer wanted to be here and there was solace in that. How she would balance the temptations and responsibilities of college life would remain to be seen. For now, it was enough to leave her with that challenge.
I hope this period of adjustment will pass quickly. I’m happy to watch our daughter grow and mature during the next four years. But right now, I’m still a little sad to gaze into her empty and neat-for-the-first-time bedroom.
Late at night seems to be the worst. Over the years, Jennifer watched her dad scramble toward deadlines in the small hours of the morning and took that dubious habit as her own. But it was during those quiet times that we would catch up with each other, one of us taking a break and dropping in on the other. They were treasured moments for me.
It’s going to be tough not picking up the phone on nights like this when I’m up working and I envision her doing the same – only a thousand miles away. But then I remember my own college days and decide to write a letter instead. That way, I won’t face an anxiety attack when she doesn’t answer her phone AND IT’S TWO O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING!
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