Last week my husband and I drove to Ohio, packed up my daughter and her dusty dorm room, and brought her home. It was quite an accomplishment for all of us! Claire survived her freshman year and so did we :-). As we were packing up her belongings, it felt like we had just unpacked them and set her up in her cozy (tiny) dorm room for the first time. Yet, time being the trickster that it is, it also felt like a lifetime ago that we had obsessed over sheets and comforters, storage bins and organizational tools. Here she was in her room looking like she had done this for years. Could it be only 9 months ago that we wondered if she was prepared? Could it be only 9 months ago that I wondered if I would ever feel complete again? Thankfully the answer to both was a resounding yes.
After the packing and cleaning were complete, we did one last walk around campus. There was time to use a few more meal swipes and purchase a few more pieces of college swag. The campus felt more comfortable, familiar, smaller even that it had a year ago during orientation. After we settled into the packed van for the long drive home, with the stress of packing behind us and the monotony of the drive still ahead of us; we got to hear her thoughts on her first year of college. We heard her talk about the great relationship she had with her roommate and the new room they will share in their sorority next year. We heard the excitement in her voice as she talked about future plans to study abroad. My heart soared as she shared stories of new friends she had met and their tentative plans to get together this summer. We listened quietly as she talked about the challenge of learning new topics at such a quick pace and the way she adjusted her study habits accordingly. We excitedly nodded as she told us about a new program she had joined and was looking forward to next year.
There was no way we could reasonably express with words our pride, our relief, and our excitement that her freshman year had gone so well. Of course, that had been our hope and expectation, but the first year doesn't always go that way. There are plenty of kids who struggled through their freshman year and who went home early, decided to transfer, or stuck it out without such great memories. We were overwhelmingly thankful for the positive experience she had and exhaled with relief in a way that we hadn't in a long time. Eventually, the long car ride took its toll and my daughter dropped off into a well deserved post-finals nap. My thoughts drifted back many years to my own trip home from campus after freshman year.
I have surprisingly few memories of packing up my belongings and cleaning up my dorm room, but I do remember that my dad was the one to drive me home for the summer. I remember getting into the loaded car and settling in for the nearly 2 hour drive home. In an uncharacteristic display of talkativeness, I shared with my dad how wonderful my year had been. I talked about the friends I had made and all that I had learned. I marveled at the variety of people I had met and how exciting it was to know people of so many different life circumstances. I can still remember the pure joy as I shared my thoughts with him. Going away to college was the single most life-changing thing that had happened to me up to that point in time. I was bursting with excitement as I shared my experience with him. Unfortunately, I can't recall what he said. My memory fills in the conversation with words of acknowledgment and a few "that's great baby's". For some reason, I long to know what he was thinking at that moment. Was he feeling proud? Was he happy for my experience? Did he think I was being overly dramatic in that way that only 19 year olds can be? Was he tired and wishing I would stop talking?!? Did he worry that I was changing too much, too fast and fear that I was growing away from him? I wonder.
I wish I could ask him. My dad has been gone for 12 years now and the moments of instinctually reaching for the phone to call him have mostly passed. But for whatever reason, this moment with my daughter brought up an intense desire to know. Did he feel the same mix of emotions that I felt? I like to think that I know how he was feeling but the truth is that I don't. For now, how he felt will remain a question mark in my mind and his thoughts will remain his alone. Maybe the expression of our feelings is never as clear to others as we think that it was.
As we continued our drive, my thoughts returned to the present. I found myself sneaking glances at my daughter. How I had missed her sweet face! I wanted to soak it all in and refamiliarize myself with the details of her face- slightly different, more mature somehow, the angles a little less sharp, same beautiful dark eyes. As we talked, I could see that my "little girl" still had her same lively personality and infectious sense of humor. Much felt exactly the same. Yet, I could also see her growth and maturity. What I couldn't assess was how she felt on the inside. Did she feel like she had grown? Did life look different to her after a year away from home? I'm sure over the coming weeks the differences will be more pronounced. Her newfound independence will bump against my sense of parenting control. Her newly formed thoughts on different subjects may not always agree with mine. Our town will definitely feel smaller and less exciting than a college campus! But hopefully, she will feel and appreciate the comfort and joy of coming home that will remain with her long after college life is over.
What I hope for her this summer after freshman year is that she will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we love her, we are proud of her, we support what she is doing, we appreciate her efforts, and we ENJOY her. Although I can't go back in time and know what my dad was thinking on our drive home after freshman year, I can do my best to make sure that my daughter doesn't have the same questions. I hope she knows the answers and isn't left to wonder.
Unusual noise and chaos woke me up early this past weekend. It didn't take long for my sleepy eyes to see a large moving truck parked ...