My daughter is about to begin her freshman year of college, a time fraught with dizzying highs and anxious lows. It got here so quickly. It seems like just yesterday we went on her first college tour. (Not, by the way to the school she ended up picking).
I remember it like it was yesterday….“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said. No sentence that begins with those six words is ever going to end well. Bracing myself, I waited for what my daughter would say next. “But could you try to you know, not say or do anything embarrassing? Like the comments you make and stuff?” Oh.
We were about to set off on her first college tour, and we were both nervous. The day was unseasonably warm and I was doing my very best not to break out into hot flash sweats in the oppressive humidity. Upon arrival, we made our way to the hushed rooms of the admissions office where a woman briskly tells us to sign in and wait in the next room for the tour to start.
We see the other families already in the room and the girl looks nervously at me and whispers “did we dress wrong?” There’s a young man in a long sleeve, button-down pink Oxford shirt, pressed khakis and loafers sitting with an older man I think must be his grandfather. To our left is a mother and daughter both looking impossibly cool on this blazingly hot day, the mom in a crisp linen sundress and the daughter in a chic skirt, top, and sandals.
I look at my fat thighs sticking to the leather couch and think “uh-oh, we are out of our depth here.” But soon more folks trickle in and I’m relieved to see several teenage boys in shorts and t-shirts and girls in the same and I relax a little. The tour guide arrives and off we go. I manage make it through the tour in one piece, although I’m always silently thankful for any time we stop somewhere air-conditioned.
Along the way I try to strike the right balance of looking interested but not eager, concerned but not worried, and cool but not trying to look cool. I say silent prayers of thanks that I’m not the mom who tries to crack a joke at every stop (my daughter looks meaningfully at me each time as if to say “see?”) Nor am I the mom who throws up her arms in annoyance along the path from dining hall to library and storms off leaving the son and dad to look at each other, shrug, and continue the tour. Nor am I the mom who falls asleep during the post-tour information session and snores loudly in the row behind us.
“Success!” I think. I’m not the most embarrassing mom of the day! I end the day a jumble of emotions: enthusiastic and excited, overwhelmed, breathless, nostalgic for the little girl who is no more, and annoyed at the attitude of the teenager who took her place.
On our way home we stop for something to eat and my wife and I bring up some other colleges we could tour, when the girl stops us and says “no more college. Not for today. Let me just be for the moment.” Of course. Of course. As usual I get ahead of myself, plan too much, and go too deep without pausing to consider how overwhelming it is for the girl at the center of it all.
At 5’11 the girl is taller than me, a fact that still surprises me. Later that day on our last leg of our trip home we stop at a convenience store/gas station for a restroom break. As we stood amidst the frozen treats, Slim Jims, potato chips, and beer displays I put my arm around her waist to draw her to me and for one very, very brief moment she let me rest my head on her shoulder. Our roles now reversed, I was the one needing the reassurance of her presence. And then as quickly as it had arrived, the moment passed and our trip continued.
It’s been two years since that tour. Reflecting back, even I didn’t realize how much awaited us as we navigated all the milestones on the countdown to her leaving. As I look at the mound of plastic bins and bags ready to move into her dorm, my chest often feels as if it’s going to collapse altogether from the ache of it all. So I stop. I breathe. And I let myself remember the feel of my cheek against her shoulder blade, and that brief moment on that long ago day, when she let me lean on her.