Lessons I learned from leaving him at school

When I became a father and began carrying helpless little Ricky around in his carseat, my biggest fear was that I’d leave the contraption, with him in it, on the roof of my Toyota and drive off.

Behold the plight of a dad with a case of attention deficit disorder so advanced my neurologist credited me with “writing the book” on the condition.

I never did that, or otherwise seriously neglected my first born. He went on to outgrow the car seat, and, recently, I drove off and left Rick where I was supposed to leave him: at college.

I know he was profoundly relieved.

It must have felt great to wave goodbye, because I’d been making up excuses to hang around his dorm room way beyond acceptable norms. After we’d completed his quick move-in, I’d provided unnecessary help wiring up all the gadgets. I’d proposed new ways to arrange his furniture and eliminate the door’s bumping of the bureau. I’d inspected the shower, twice. I’d checked out the rec room, which had pool tables but no balls or sticks. Finally, I’d suggested (OK, I’d insisted) that we all go to lunch. It proved a challenge finding someplace that was serving lunch at 10:15 a.m.

As the morning wore on, the cues kept piling up, and they all said one thing: “It’s time for you to go.”

Rationally, of course, I knew this. It’s what all of us — parents and son — had been preparing for for 18 years. The kid whose first-day-of-kindergarten photo telegraphed “I’m ready, I’m mortified, I’m ready, I’m mortified, I’m ready…” had transformed himself into a confident young man who was unequivocally ready to close the dorm room door on me, and on his childhood.

As I shifted my weight from foot to foot in his doorway, I realized I clearly was not ready. I’d overestimated the importance of rationality in all this. I’d been flat wrong when I told myself this would be easy because Rick would be just 12.6 miles from home, at Temple University. Turns out physical separation is the least of it.

Brass tacks: On the day we delivered him to university, I realized how imperative it had become for Rick to need me less, or, for a time, not at all.

Unfortunately, parenting doesn’t work like that. Once that baby boy smiles at you and dozes off on your chest, you can never need him one atom’s breadth less. You are hooked.

My mind knows this kind of irrational bond doesn’t make any sense for the grown Rick, and will actually damage him if left unmanaged.

The stuff of parenthood, however, does not principally dwell in the mind. It takes up residence in the body. It locks itself into the shoulders the first time you carry a limp body from a mini-van to a crib. It pounds itself into the muscles and bones every time you stand up and clap at a concert or ball game. It burns itself into the heart when you rush to the doctor’s office or the emergency room. And it wafts into the lungs as you lean toward your sleeping baby and feel his breath on your lips.

How much you need your child has absolutely no correlation to how much your child needs you.

In the 18 years Rick and I spent together in the same house, all of this coalesced into something I can describe only as “The Feeling of Rick.” This is the feeling that makes every parent, at some time or the other, peer through the crack of a door just to behold a sleeping child. It draws you into the room, and makes you place your hand on the baby’s back, to feel it rise and fall … just to be sure.

This feeling is insistent, often irrationally demanding: “Find him, now!”

When your child is under your roof, subject to your laws, you can answer the call fairly easily. Even if you can’t, or shouldn’t, reach out to your child, you beat back the demand with thoughts like: Rick is having dinner with a friend, or rehearsing late at school, or whatever.

That all changes when the child leaves, and that’s what I’m working with now. More often than not, that Feeling of Rick cannot attach itself to the reality of Rick. He might be in class, he might be in the city, he might be visiting friends at a different school. He might be drunk in some bar. Who the hell knows?

As this happens again and again, I’m learning to resist the impulse to insert myself into his new world, much as an addict must learn to resist that first sip or puff.

Oh, it would be so easy to just text him. I could do it at this moment, from the iChat window a couple of inches from my cursor. But the dorm room door is closed, and behind it Rick is living the life he’s been prepared for. His father is trying to get used to being OK with just The Feeling of Rick.

It helps a little to realize that the actual Rick, wherever he may be at this moment, is doing something far more important than being my son: He is becoming his own man.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.