Sadie came into our lives on a December day in 1995 at an orphanage in Xiamen, China, in the southeastern part of the country across the water from Taiwan. She was six months old and couldn’t hold her head up by herself.
This weekend, 17 ½ years later, we dropped her off at Monmouth College, a small liberal arts school in Monmouth, Illinois, where she starts a new phase in her life. How did it happen so fast? All those swim meets, basketball games, softball tournaments, school programs, birthday parties, water ski shows, doctors’ visits, family vacations, grade school, junior high and high school graduations and all the rest are over. Just like that.
I enjoyed every minute of it. I relished in her whirlwind persona, moving from one activity to the next, in her never-say-die attitude, in her willingness to take on new challenges and in her desire to help others. She wrote her college essay about how she helped get a girl with Down’s syndrome on her high school swim team and then became her biggest booster. I will miss her daily presence in our house and her infectious personality.
I’m sure my experiences this weekend are not unique. They have been or will be shared by thousands of parents and their college-bound kids. Just as they were last fall and the fall before that and next fall and the fall after that. But my separation anxiety is real. I looked forward to the weekend because Sadie was so excited. Yet I knew it would be difficult emotionally. She never even went to overnight camp. The longest we’d been apart was a week. Now we were facing many weeks before the first school break.
All the trips to Shopko and Target in Monmouth and neighboring Galesburg took our minds over what was about to happen. We met her roommate and her friends. We went to lunch together in the cafeteria. We walked around the campus.
The school made a special effort to welcome the new students and their anxious parents by staging a “Matriculation Convocation.” It is sort of a reverse graduation ceremony, replete with bagpipes and a faculty procession. The President, Dr. Mauri Ditzler, provided some insightful remarks about the importance of learning and seeking wisdom. The students took the “Matriculation Pledge,” in which they promised “that we will accept responsibility for our lives while here at Monmouth College; that we will endeavor daily to choose the course of action that ensures our own growth and well-being and that of our fellow students; that we will act with honesty and integrity in all that we do” and so on. Very nice, reassuring words for parents about to cut the ties with their kids. At the end of the ceremony, each new student went to the microphone to say her or his name. At graduation, someone will read their names.
The president gently reminded the parents that they are welcome to stay around, but not too long. Your students, he said, have important things to do.
And he’s right, I guess. If I weren’t so lonesome, I’d be really jealous of Sadie and her class of 2017. What a great time they have to look forward to. When else in your life do you have the chance for four years to write your own story, to paint on your own canvass? A chance to grow up, to study, to learn, to meet kids from across the country and around the world. A chance to experiment with new ideas, to explore, to participate in athletics and community politics.
When I got to Monmouth, I texted a friend whose son is leaving for college this week and who is as anxious about the separation as I am. I said, “We made it. You will, too.” I hoped it helped her just a little bit.
We saved the final goodbye for Sunday morning after breakfast and a few photos by the college sign. Sadie and I hugged and she hugged her mom. I told her how proud I was of her and I told her to have the time of her life. I could barely get the words out because I had tears in my eyes and I was choked up. We have this to look forward in another three years when our younger daughter goes off to college.
I remembered a recent column in the Star Tribune by Michael Gerson, who writes for The Washington Post. He described his feelings about taking his son to college. He reminded parents to keep a bedroom for their college student because it’s a psychological symbol that they still have a place at home no matter what.
It sounded like a good idea and I plan to do that. And why not? Sadie’s room is as clean and neat as it has ever been.