My Journey: Dropping My Oldest Son Off At College

by Joli Beasley

One morning last May, I walked out of my house and I immediately felt it. There was a monumental and seemingly premature shift in my world. It was unwelcome but undeniable, and I pondered how one night, one son, and a cap and gown could throw my equilibrium so off kilter. I was now the mother of a high school graduate.

1I didn’t expect my child’s graduation ceremony to make me feel so different. It wasn’t me who was graduating after all. And we still had the whole summer ahead of us before we moved him to Norman. So nothing had really changed yet, right?

Wrong. He felt it, I felt it, and thus commenced a beautiful but complicated dance with new steps and different music and neither of us really knew for sure who was leading. This resulted in a very clumsy performance (on my part mostly) where we carefully tried to learn the new routine and place our feet just right, yet we still managed to step on each other’s toes a couple of times.

I don’t want to give the impression that this was a summer of discord in our home. There were no big arguments or heated exchanges. Josh and I have a great relationship and he has always been very loving and respectful. It’s just that this transition from being a child under our roof and under our authority to being an independent and responsible adult on a college campus doesn’t happen overnight.

To be honest, any agitation that happens during this time is probably God’s design. A gift really. It’s that little bit of friction that ignites the spark needed for the imminent launch to adulthood. While I didn’t feel quite ready or willing to send my firstborn off to college, it was clear the time had come.

As we were moving him into the dorm, the reality began to set in and a little bit of panic started rising up inside of me….. Have I prepared him well for this, taught him everything he needs to know, bought him everything he needs for college? And then more personal and probing questions….Did he love his childhood? Will he look back on his life at home with fond memories? Or does he harbor any bitterness or resentment for my parenting mistakes? If so, is it too late to fix it?? Does he think I was a good mom??? Is there a way to stop time right now because I’m not quite ready!?!

He’s only been gone two weeks now and you want to know what I miss the most (besides that dazzling smile)? Dinner. Let’s face it, once kids get their drivers license you rarely see them again. Suddenly family vacations become more about the uninterrupted time together than about the destination. And that’s pretty much how I came to feel about dinnertime.

I used to hate to cook. I didn’t know how to and didn’t want to learn either. As my kids grew, however, I came to see how important food was to them (especially the boys). I soon realized that cooking was not only a way to nourish their bodies but it was an inroad to their hearts and a doorway to their minds. I slowly began to teach myself simple recipes and over time ventured out to try more complicated ones. I dare say I think I eventually became a decent cook. And what I once used to despise ultimately became my most treasured time of the entire day.

It would start at about 4:30 on school days. I would make my way to the kitchen and begin to get out everything I needed to cook dinner that night. I have a tiny galley kitchen but my saving grace is an enormous window about ten feet wide that looks out over my front yard. Our driveway forks and one side goes straight into the garage but the other side curves around and ends directly in front of that kitchen window, and this is where the kids park their cars. Because we have a gravel driveway, I usually heard the kids coming home from school before I saw them. The crunchy sound of their tires hitting that Oklahoma river rock heralded the end of a calm and quiet house and announced the arrival of chatter and energy and life.

3I can genuinely say that I never neglected to pause and soak up that precious moment. Last year it was particularly poignant because all three of my kids were in high school together and it was Josh’s last year at home. The days that they all came home in the same car were my favorite. My heart filled with joy as I watched my loves spill out of the car one by one, each entering the house with their own unique style of “Hi Mom!” Which was immediately followed by “What’s for dinner?” Usually then Josh and Luke would collapse on the couch and Anna Kate would join me in the kitchen to help prepare the meal.

2On a side note, the boys gave me one of my favorite gifts this past Christmas — an iron dinner bell. I was going to hang it out on our back deck but they insisted it be hung in the kitchen. And if your teenage boys buy you a dinner bell and want it to be hung in the kitchen, then that’s exactly what you do. It has been fun for the practical purpose of calling everyone to the table with a loud gong, but what that dinner bell symbolizes is why I cherish it the most. It is a tangible and visual reminder of the invisible yet integral connections that happen around a family table.

Once dinner was ready I would ring the bell and we would all come together for that sacred hour of food and fellowship. I am convinced that this was the single most meaningful thing I ever did for our children. It was the one time of the day, circled around our table, that we were truly able to pause the chaos of life and enter in to a peaceful time of sharing and bonding with one another.

I love the way Henri Nouwen explains it:

“A meal is more than eating and drinking. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable. The table is the barometer of the family. What happens during meals shapes a large part of our memories. As we grow older we forget many things, but we mostly remember…these special moments around the table [because] they stand out as vivid reminders of the quality of our lives together.

It usually only took us about 15 minutes to eat, but we often lingered at the table long after the food was gone. Sometimes our conversations were deep and philosophical, sometimes we mulled over the significance of current events, but most often it was simply “So how was your day today?” “How did that test go that you were worried about?” “What did your coach say about your game last night?” “What’s going on this weekend?”

These seemingly mundane questions are actually the stuff of life. And strangely enough, it is what I miss the most. Josh and I are very close, and I feel confident our relationship will evolve and adjust to the new norm. But the reality is that from now on I will only get the highlight reel, not the play-by-play account. And quite frankly, this is where I’m struggling. Simply put, I miss sharing the nuances of everyday life with him. He has new friends I’ll never meet and he’ll have new experiences I’ll never hear about because by the time we talk it will be old news. And this is right and normal and wonderfully healthy, but sad for this momma who remembers this as though it was yesterday:

7But must accept the reality that that little boy is now this young man:

6

Leaving Josh in Norman was one of the most intense and complex conundrum of emotions I have ever experienced. I have never been in a situation where I spanned the whole spectrum of joy and sorrow wrapped up in one big tidal wave that came crashing down on me all at once. This is what we raised him for, and I am bursting with pride at the amazing young man he has become. He was ready and happy and this is his time…I was just wishing that time hadn’t come quite so quickly.

On the way home from Norman I pulled up a picture on my phone of Josh and me standing together in his newly assembled dorm room. I looked through tears over every detail of the photo and reminisced about each thing we had purchased to make his room as cozy and homey as we could….the foam topper sure helped soften up that thin plastic mattress, the throw blanket at the foot of the bed was so soft and would be handy if he wanted to nap, that clip-on lamp by his bed sure was being persnickety and wouldn’t stay pointed in the direction he wanted it to. 5I continued to scan the picture and I saw me looking tired and haggard and sporting a very unconvincing smile, and then Josh standing so tall and strong yet looking a bit dubious about the whole situation himself.

And then I saw it. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice it before, but there it was…..his Bible. He had carefully and purposefully put it right beside his bed. The sight of that Bible welled up all kinds of emotion inside me for many different reasons.

To begin with, that Bible was given to Josh at a very special dinner on his 16th birthday. Todd got the idea of the dinner from a book he read called “Raising a Modern-Day Knight.” We chose his 16th birthday because we figured once he got his drivers license, his freedoms would increase exponentially, but so would his temptations and opportunities to make critical decisions. It is a pivotal time in life where choices made begin to have bigger consequences.

At this dinner, which was a complete surprise to Josh, Todd gathered together all of the men in Josh’s life who had influenced and mentored him up until that point in time. The purpose was to edify and affirm the person he had become, and also challenge him to strive for a life of compassion, service, character and integrity going forward. Each man wrote him a letter and they each read a portion of it that night. They were letters offering seasoned wisdom and advice as he took his first steps into manhood.

4At one point Todd told Josh to look around the room and remember each of the faces there. “These are the men,” he explained, “who are cheering you on from the sidelines. If you ever have a problem that you don’t feel comfortable talking to me about, you can go to one of these men and I trust that the counsel they give you will be sound. These men are amazing role models for you, and you can always look to them for guidance, friendship and support.”

Well, each of those men signed their name inside Josh’s new Bible that night as a testament of their loyalty and love for him. And now those signatures, and the spirit of their intent, sit beside his bed every night inside the cover of that cherished Bible. My heart is so full.

The other feeling I had when I saw that Bible on his desk was that maybe, just maybe, by the grace of God, I had done something right as a mother. One thing I’ve learned from my children is that their journey to faith is their own. Their own choice, their own passion, their own pace, and their own personal relationship. They have their own path for getting there and the way they cultivate their faith is unique to each child. But if I had any little morsel of responsibility in pointing him to the trail-head of his lifelong walk with God, even in the midst of my failures and inadequacies, then I will have done something worthy and eternal in the life of my child. My heart is so grateful.

And finally, I say these things with deep humility knowing that a Bible by a bed doesn’t equate to a Godly life. There is no pride in saying my son took his Bible to college. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is because I know that he is imperfect and unsure that I’m so thankful he knows where to go for redirection or reassurance. It is because I know that he will occasionally make mistakes and have poor judgement as he makes his way through college on his journey to adulthood that I’m so glad he took his road map for getting back on track. It is because I know that he will have moments of homesickness and feel inadequate and overwhelmed by school work and uncertainty about his future that I am so happy he knows where to go to find words of encouragement and love. My heart is so humble.

The night before we moved Josh into his dorm, he and Todd were going to join me in Norman (I had gone a day earlier for sorority bid day) and we made plans to meet up at a local Italian restaurant for dinner. Since it was a nice evening and I had time to kill, I went to the restaurant early, took a book and sat at a table on the front patio awaiting their arrival.

Soon a young couple came out of the restaurant and was headed to their car when their son, who looked to be about three years old, broke out into giggles and ran behind a brick column. “Come get me!” he teased as he poked his head around one side of the column, then ran to other side and did the same. The mom started toward him and he evaded her grasp long enough to squeal out one more giddy “Come get me!” with the kind of exuberance only a toddler can muster. Just as the scene was warming my heart and bringing fond memories to my mind, the dad snatched the boy up with a rough grab and a tough voice and told him to “get in the car right now!”

Look, I’ve been there…I understand that feeling of exasperation. Maybe their son likes to play this game every time they get in the car. Maybe he was a terror at the table inside the restaurant. Maybe the dad had a stressful day at work or is consumed with worry over a sick family member. As the famous quote says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Even still, looking back I wish I could have found the courage to say to him, “Excuse me, may I ask a favor of you? For his sake, for your sake, or even just for my sake, would you please take a moment and go chase your son? Because tomorrow I’ll be telling mine goodbye.”

Joli was born and raised in Tulsa and is a graduate of Southern Methodist University. She is a Board member for the Tulsa Town Hall lecture series, a freelance writer for TulsaPeople magazine, and a member of the Waller PR team. She has been married to her high school sweetheart, Todd, for 22 years and they have three children. Their oldest, Josh, is a sophomore at OU, Luke is a freshman at the University of Colorado, and Anna Kate is a junior at Booker T. Washington High School. 

This article made its debut in 2014 on Joli’s blog.

Read our companion piece with 4 ways to reach out to college students.

3 Comments on My Journey: Dropping My Oldest Son Off At College

  1. Wow! Love this article. Thanks Joli!!

    Like

  2. Beautifully written! This brought back feelings and memories of that time in my life.

    Like

  3. Love this, Joli. thank you so much for sharing.

    Like

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