Monday, August 26, 2013

Drop Off

Over the nearly twenty years that I have labored in the groves of public relations and promotion, I have been struck by the magical confluence that often occurs between projects I represent and my own life.

A psychologist, or simply an observer of life, might demystify this observation somewhat, pointing out that I am likely drawn to people who, and projects that, mirror my own affinities or my life itself.

Still, I was quite unprepared for the outsize case of goosebumps and outbreak of gulping sobs that overtook me when my funny and profoundly soulful client Rabbi Bob Alper sent me a chapter from a previous book of his... with the suggestion that I seek to get it republished in this Back-to-School season as it depicts the emotional impact of a parent dropping his child off at college for the first time.

The chapter is entitled Departures, and reading it ruined me for hours...if not days as I was in my own Countdown to College mode, getting Little Babe ready for move-in day at Muhlenberg College. It originally appeared in Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This: The Holiness of Little Daily Dramaspublished by Liguori Publications in 1996. 

Now, having dropped off Little Babe in a scene of farewell that neatly echoes the abrupt one described by Bob in his chapter (that's my youngest son in our rented minivan, pictured above, on the NJ Turnpike this past Friday morning, en route to Muhlenberg. You can see how traumatized he is to be heading to college. Not.), I have read and re-read Departures, finding solace, fellowship and great insight in his depiction of a parent's stunned leave-taking from their cool-as-a-cucumber, college-bound child.

Thank you, Bob. In the spirit of paying it forward, I am reprinting (with Bob's permission!) Departures.   It is my gift for parents everywhere in this Back-to-School season. From day care through pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school and college, the approach of the new school year is always bittersweet.

And if you like Departures, check out Bob Alper's newest book is Thanks. I Needed That. It is a touching, transcendent and readable collection of uplifting, inspiring essays; a one-stop-shopping site for the Jewish High Holiday season and beyond. 

When I was a smart young rabbi and knew quite a lot, I created worship services for little children, adapted baby naming ceremonies, and lectured to new mommies and daddies about how to raise their children Jewishly.

Now I'm a not-as-smart middle aged rabbi who wishes that somewhere, a more enthusiastic middle-aged colleague would create a life-cycle ceremony that addresses events I find myself going through: kids leaving home.

Sometimes it feels as if Judaism, and probably most other organized religions, guide and nurture us through the many stages of parenting, from birth rituals and the beginnings of religious education right on through the agony of adolescence.  But suddenly it seems as if we parents are on our own at the parting, the moment when our children embark on the step that, for most, changes their status in our homes from resident to visitor.

Whether it's college, a job, the armed services, there comes that moment, and for parents the experience is often similar.

When I went off to Lehigh University in the fall of 1962, my parents drove me to campus, six hours from home.  We unloaded my stuff, made the uncomfortable introductions with my roommates and the fearsome dorm counselor, and then my parents gracefully took their leave.  About three decades later my mother confessed that after they exited the campus they pulled the car over to the side of the street, turned off the engine, and cried.

On a whitewater rafting trip in Idaho I became friendly with a fellow from Oregon named Patrick Michael Sean O'Halloran.  He told me that when he entered college in 1961 his Irish Catholic parents drove him to the California campus.  They unloaded the car quickly, and he was pleased that they departed soon after.  A few miles into the trip home, Pat only recently learned, his parents pulled into a highway rest area, turned off the engine, and cried.

There must be a better way to launch children into their independence. 

Some of life's major events are marked by a very discernible occurrence, the instant of birth being the most clear.  Other events are spread out over time:  the transition from babyhood to personhood, for example, or the passage through adolescence, which for some takes an entire decade.  Even a wedding, though it has its prime moment, is diffused over the months of preparation and the hours of ceremonial festivities.

But that leave-taking comes upon us abruptly, sometimes with no forethought or preparation, and certainly without ritual to help us endure.  It may happen in this way because our children are focused on what lies ahead, and we parents are equally invested in avoiding thinking about what their loss...and that is the key word...what their loss will mean to us, to our home, to our relationships.  And so we all conspire to avoid thinking about what is about to happen.

I remember how our son left home. 

Zack's departure was more complex than the norm.  Our family was in a state of very happy transition, about to realize a long-held "impossible" dream of leaving our Philadelphia suburb and moving to Vermont.  It was the end of June, and Sherri had already gone north to start her new job.  Jessie had begun her final year at summer camp.  Zack and I remained at the house. 

I packed, while Zack celebrated his graduation from high school with a round of farewell parties.  His plan was to spend the summer working at the New Jersey shore, living in a 2-bedroom "genteel poverty" flat with a group of between three and eight other kids.  At the end of August he would continue on to college in North Carolina.

At that time Zack was driving a 1984 Volvo sedan.  I bought it new, thinking that it was the kind of car that I could use, then pass on to Sherri, and later, perhaps, even to the kids.  At 124,000 miles it came into Zack's possession, and on that June day it was packed to the ceiling with all that was important to its owner.

"Gotta split, Dad.  Josh is waiting at his house and we're going to drive down to the shore together.  Bye."

"Bye."  Is that how childhood ends?  "Bye?"  Just like that? 

As I headed out to the driveway I started to think of a stroll I'd taken 18 years earlier, down a hospital corridor that connected the delivery room with the nursery.  Beside me a nurse guided a bassinet which contained a brand new person.  And the novel thought kept racing through my mind, I'm taking a walk with my son.  With my son! 

The screen door slammed behind me, a needed shock to my system that reminded me to stop being so damn lugubrious.  After all, Zack was about to grab his independence.  We raised him in that direction.  He's just doing his job of separating, and he's doing it well.  And besides, I would visit him at the shore in a few weeks.

But still... But still...

I walked over to the car.  Looked it over, inspected the tires and rearranged a piece of clothing that had gotten stuck in the door.

"Really, Dad.  I've gotta go.  Josh is waiting."

We gave each other a hug and a kiss.   One of us had tears in his eyes and even down his cheeks, while the other gently broke away, started the car, and backed out of the driveway.

Zack paused in the road to shift gears.  Then he slowly drove to the foot of our hill, towards the intersection where he would turn right and disappear from sight.  I stood alone, watching as he edged away.  A blurry maroon object growing smaller and smaller.  A car, and my son, leaving his childhood home.  Leaving his childhood.  Forever. 

And then my vision cleared slightly.  I noticed that the old car's tailpipe was loose, sort of hanging by one clip.  The forward thrust of the car made it flutter up and down, so gently, almost in slow motion. 

It was phallic. 

And it was waving to me.

That was probably the most highly charged, symbol-laden experience of my life, and I still have no idea exactly what the symbolism meant. 

But I remember that wave.

       *                                               *                                               *

Four years later and it was Jessie's turn.  By now the old Volvo had been handed to the youngest Alper, and with 187,000 miles on the odometer it was about to head towards another college.  Jessie had blossomed into a free-thinking, independent, self-assured young woman, and since I could not guard or protect her any longer, I channeled some of my paternal caring into her car.  At least I could feel useful during the countdown days before she, too, drove away.  

They say history repeats itself.  Ecclesiastes reminds us that there's nothing new under the sun.  Yup.

Before it could pass the Vermont State inspection and the more stringent Robert Alper inspection, the Volvo needed the following: Four new tires.  Rear brakes.  Shocks.  Struts.  One headlamp. A rear muffler.

And a tailpipe.

A few weeks later a caravan comprised of two cars, two parents, one freshwoman, and one dog named Gideon drove the 2 1/2 hours south to Jessie's new college.  A sensitively prepared schedule suggested we arrive around noon, help our child settle in, and join the president, faculty, and freshman class for a late afternoon reception.  Then we were equally sensitively urged to LEAVE.  Which we did.

By 6:30 we found ourselves on the Taconic Parkway heading north.  One empty car, two parents, and a dog.  No radio.  No conversation. 

A few minutes into the trip a wave of righteous canine indignation overcame the dog when he realized that someone was occupying his seat next to the driver, his beloved master.  Giddy was insistent, and Sherri in no mood to argue.  She spent the entire trip home with a fifty-five-pound dog sitting in her lap.  It provided needed diversion.

Later that night, after the answering machine was tended and the mail sorted, after the car was cleaned out and the throw rug Jessie decided she really didn't need was wrapped and placed in the cellar, I walked into her room and sat alone on the bench next to her picnic-table desk.  The room had a sudden neatness about it that I knew I'd hate.  I looked around at the hat collection, the posters on the walls, the rejected CDs and the cluttered high school notebooks strewn across the closet shelf. 

I thought about the events of the day, thought how happy I was for her, and how proud.  And also how sad, how selfishly sad I felt at her departure.
Sherri called out to find me, then came up to Jessie's room where she quietly joined me on the bench.   We sat in silence for a while, just looking around.

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