In the Fall of the year, school starts for children. Some boys and girls walk out the door of our homes to begin their education, as Kindergarten teachers prepare for five-year-olds to arrive. Freshmen students wonder what it will feel like to finally be in high school, and those who have finished their Senior year now wonder about Fall, perhaps, and the ‘what’s next’ of beginning college. Here are my musings about our experience several years ago, when our first son walked out the door to … school starting, again.

If you call my house the week after next, we won’t be home. We have to go to San Diego.My wife and I and our three sons plan to make the trip in two cars. We’ll have to rent a trailer, because of all the stuff. They say San Diego is lovely this time of year. I know he’ll enjoy it . . .

Marcus, I mean. For you see, in just a few weeks, Marcus—my first son, my oldest child, my very good friend—leaves for college, and he won’t be coming back . . . at least not to stay. He will begin a new life as a university student. I think he was wise to attend the local community college after he graduated from high school. His mother and I were glad to have him continue living here at home for these last two years while he got some of his basic coursework out of the way. But now, he’s transferring to a university to finish his degree. He’s made arrangements for an apartment, and he and his mother are already packing and planning how to decorate.

I occasionally hear them talking about towels and curtains and bedspreads. He’s going to take some stuff from our house to set up his new place: a bed and dresser, a couple of lamps, some dishes and pots and pans. My wife has been setting small appliances aside for months: an old vacuum, a toaster, an iron, and a blender with instructions taped to its side—Works just fine, but you have to jiggle the switch. It’s apparent—to this parent—that Marcus plans a longer stay in San Diego. He’s setting up a house. He’s intent on making a permanent home for himself—a permanent home away from home.

I never realized so much emotion was attached to “things.” I didn’t know that taking pictures off the wall could produce such strong feelings: deep, mixed moods, both melancholy and maudlin. I don’t know how everyone else in the family feels about Marcus leaving home, but for me, it’s not easy. Nate’s the next oldest. He will soon wear the mantle of “the oldest son in the house.”

Does that feel strange to him? I don’t know, but before Marcus leaves, I plan to ask Nathan how he feels about that. I’ll probably ask Simeon, too. His oldest brother had been his pal and model and friend. What’s it feel like to have your oldest brother gather up his belongings and stack them in a corner ready to be loaded into a trailer? When I get the chance, I think I’ll ask Sim.

Randee’s the momma, of course, and she must feel like a mother. I have no idea what that feels like—but I do talk to her some about it, and she tried to tell me how she feels. When she talks, there is a mother-pain I can hear. It’s a “birthing” pain that only mothers can know, I think: a pain that first comes when babies are finally born after nine long months of waiting; a pain that comes again when those same “babies” separate themselves from their mothers a second time.

Joy and expectation mix with sorrow and anguish to form a bittersweet cup. The marrow of a mother’s heart cannot be separated from her own flesh and blood. But Randee seems to be facing this rebirth of her oldest child with braveness and a genuine sense of expectancy.

No, I don’t know what the other members of my family feel about the oldest brother and child and friend leaving home. But I know what I feel. I guess the biggest thing I’m dealing with as I contemplate my son’s departure is wondering. Try as I might, I can’t keep my mind from opening the door of “I wonder if . . . “ and then walking into a room filled with all sorts of scary things. Some of the things that scare me are pragmatic, important, visible things that can be touched and seen and felt:

What’s he going to do if he runs out of money before he runs out of month? He doesn’t have a job yet. Where’s he going to work? What if he can’t find a job? What if he gets sick? What if he stops going to church? What if he can’t find a good friend? What if he does find a . . . girl friend?

I try not to spend too much time with those types of wanderings and wonderings, however. They all tend to focus on the future, and of course, I know I have no control over his future. But I have had some control on his past. There is a gnawing that eats away at my inner dad-self; hope and fear and doubt all wrapped tightly into one package that I’m almost afraid to open:

Have I told him everything? Did I forget anything? What more does he need to know about life before he walks out my front door toward a front door of his own? It occurs to me that reading about someone else’s child leaving home may be a little bit like looking at family pictures in someone else’s wallet. They’re nice pictures, but they’re not yours. You don’t have strong feelings about the people pictured in someone else’s wallet. And you may not feel anything at all as I tell you about my son—my oldest son who’s going away to make a life of his own, away from his brothers, away from his mother and his dad and his home.

But you’ll feel it if it ever happens to you.

I don’t know what you will feel exactly, because all families are different. But I am convinced reality will set in as you pack up the boxes. If you’re like my wife and me, then you’ll be packing prayers with the toaster. You’ll be tucking in your very best wishes with the dishrags and towels. And in spite of all you can do, you won’t be able to resist. You’ll take every opportunity as the day approaches to impart some final thought, some pearl of wisdom, some “don’t-forget-to . . . .“ Last minute instructions to reinforce what you hope you’ve said earlier in life. Then, you’ll load the car, as I will the week after next. You’ll take a quiet drive to your own “San Diego.” And the ride back home will be quieter, still.

I have come to a new understanding and appreciation of a sacred, solemn trust-agreement between the Lord God in heaven and parents on earth. I have known all along that children are a gift of God, a loan of love. It’s just that I didn’t fully appreciate a reality that has been true from the very beginning: Children come to pass . . . but they don’t come to stay.

“Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.”

(Ps. 127:3 NIV)

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