Sending a child off to college prompts meditations on parenting and the passage of time.
(This column originally appeared in August 2011 in the Kansas City Star.)
In his book Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman describes a place where time stands still—where raindrops “hang motionless in air,” pendulums “float mid-swing,” and “pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets.” He calls it the center of time. Lightman then asks, “Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time?” His answer: “Parents with children, and lovers.”
At this time of year when parents of college freshmen are packing up the car with mini-fridges, extra-long twin sheets sets, study pillows, and shower caddies, the wish to stop the pendulum, if even for just a few moments, is tempting. Amidst the trips to Target and Staples, the cleaning out of closets and keepsakes, the going-away parties and the final good-byes, it’s understandable to feel wistful for the years gone by and apprehensive about the months to come. We find ourselves remembering moments of innocence and joy when our children were young, and reflecting on our parenting in times of challenge. In these moments of reflection and reminiscence the wish to turn back the clock in order to relive the good times and perhaps get a “do-over” in the bad times is hard to resist.
Add to that the uncertainty and trepidation associated with sending our children off on their own to fend for themselves in an unknown universe where they’ll inevitably come face to face with life’s hardships and everyday challenges. It’s no wonder we find ourselves doling out last-minute advice and warnings to our children as we show them how to use their new ATM card, teach them to do a load of laundry, or gather around the kitchen table for one last family dinner. If only we could send our children out into the world with an amulet that would protect them from harm and tragedy and people with hate in their hearts.
In the place described by Lightman, where time stands still and parents can be seen “clutching their children in a frozen embrace that will never let go,” Lightman imagines a world where our children would “never grow wrinkled or tired,” “never get injured,” and “never know evil.” Yet Lightman also alludes to the trade-offs involved in wishing for this “eternity of contentment,” in which we are “fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.” To be suspended in time requires the absence of movement. A heart that stops beating feels neither pain nor joy. So the choice becomes to keep moving forward, and take the bitter with the sweet. “Life is a vessel of sadness,” Lightman writes, “but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life.”
Barring amulets and the ability to stop the pendulum, as parents we must choose to bear these rites of passage with dignity and unselfishness. We remind ourselves that it’s not about us really—it’s about them after all—and that this is the way things are supposed to be. And so we seek a place of serenity in our hearts as we pull up to the dorm room, unload plastic storage bins, place fresh linens on the lofted dorm bed, hook up the new laptop, and wrap our arms around our child in one last embrace—offering an encouraging smile—before getting in the car to let the tears roll down our cheeks.