"We're wavers," I told the kids when they were little. This means that when you’re leaving our house we don't say goodbye at the door. Instead we walk outside with you and wave you off from the driveway, and as you drive away we keep waving until your car turns left or right at the stop sign and we can't see you anymore. We do this rain or shine. Cold of night. We do it. It's what we do. We're wavers.
My eldest, a son, Sawyer, graduated high school in May, turned eighteen in June, and headed off to Reed, a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, in late August. As a former freshman dean at a university I know the delicious challenge, growth, and fun the college years offer, and I was excited for what would await him in this next chapter of life. But over these summer months I also worried that perhaps we had not done enough to prepare Sawyer to stand on his own two feet. Which is not to say we hadn’t tried.
In the small bathroom off our kitchen hang some posters preaching how to comport oneself in life. One is “Desiderata,” the prose poem by Max Ehrmann that begins “Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” My own parents hung a copy of Desiderata in the downstairs bathroom of my childhood home, and I had memorized it as a child and decided I would have it in my own home when the time came, and so it was. Over the years, Sawyer had memorized it too, and occasionally he quoted bits of it. His favorite line is, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” It seemed a particularly useful line for a teen in our community to take into his soul, as ours is a town where academic achievement and personal accomplishment feel to be the currency of a person’s worth. It’s also a great reminder to have with you at college. So in late July as my husband Dan and I began planning for Sawyer’s move to college, Dan suggested we order a copy of Desiderata for the dorm room. I loved the idea and further suggested we make it a gift to him to be discovered only after we’d said goodbye.
On a day late in August we woke before dawn to pack the rented minivan for the long ride from Northern California up to Portland. Desiderata lay in a plain brown cardboard box stuffed between suitcases and duffle bags. Our sixteen-year-old daughter Avery was staying behind to face a busy and rigorous junior year of high school that was already underway. When my kids hugged goodbye—their bodies in a mutual embrace, their tears wetting each other’s shoulders—I found it excruciating to watch their unbridled love and anguish, so I turned away and paced back and forth behind the car to give them the time and space they needed. When I finally pulled the car away from the curb just before 7 a.m., Avery stood on the driveway and waved goodbye until we could no longer see her in our rearview mirror. Good for her I thought to myself, my heart tugging at the sinew in my chest, my hand tugging the hem of my t-shirt to clean my wet glasses at the stop sign. She’s doing it without prodding. She’s doing it because it’s what we do.
I drove us out onto streets that became highways that became I-5, which would carry us on our long trek northward into Oregon. Sawyer was in charge of the music and chose The Eagles, with “Hotel California” up first for this journey out of his home state. When the playlist ended I suggested we listen to a different set of songs and Sawyer cued up my requests: Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses,” about a foal with wobbly knees that becomes a racehorse, Dar Williams’ “The One Who Knows,” about a mother and child, Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” a child’s longing for a parent. The music loosened the spigot of our tears, and the three of us sobbed quietly in our seats until I, the driver, had to widen my eyes and blink repeatedly just to be able to see the road. When I decided we couldn’t take it anymore, Sawyer switched to the Hamilton mixtape. We pulled over a few times for gas, and for lunch near Mt. Shasta, and we hit Portland by dinnertime.
The next day was practical. Sawyer checked in and we all hauled his belongings up three flights of stairs to his dorm room—a single that was neither spacious nor small. Dan and I sized up what the room was lacking: enough shelves for the many books Sawyer packed; a few storage containers to hold random things; and a beanbag chair to soften things up and maybe create an inviting space for friends. We made it our task to get those things that evening while Sawyer attended the various programs on the orientation schedule.
By 7 p.m., Dan and I had found the local IKEA. Dan knew exactly which bookshelf to get, and I had in mind that Sawyer needed a set of three or four plastic drawers stacked vertically as his storage containers. But Dan wanted to get individual cardboard boxes with lids. I tried to explain what I had pictured, but Dan brushed me off insisting that the cardboard boxes were best. He even played the trump card, going so far as to say that he and Sawyer had already talked about this. Having lost the argument I seethed like a petulant teen then stormed off in the direction of bedding where I found my consolation prize—a $2.99 pillow which I tossed into the cart when Dan caught up with me there. Sawyer didn’t need another pillow—we’d brought two from home—but I needed to make a contribution to his dorm room. Dan and I sniped at each other over the dimensions and color of the throw rug we both agreed the room needed. By the time we were in the checkout line I’d revisited my angry outburst and realized it wasn’t about the storage boxes, it was about me. This is the last thing I get to do for my boy and I need to get it right.
Dan apologized for not hearing me out about the bins and I apologized for getting angry and we laughed it off. Twenty-five years of marriage teaches you nothing if not what to hang on to and what to let go. We climbed back into the car once again on the same side, and drove on to Bed Bath & Beyond and then Target and then Home Depot for the last item on our list—the beanbag chair—but came up empty handed.
At about 9 p.m., we were back on campus. Dan looked over at me and offered to drop me at the Airbnb before heading over to Sawyer’s dorm to deliver the goods and assemble the bookshelf. “Don’t you get that I want to be a part of this?” I said, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice. Sawyer was waiting for us as we pulled up, and he and Dan carried the heavy stuff up the stairs while I brought up the rear. Then Sawyer scooted off to the next event and Dan began putting the bookshelf together. I put a pillow case on the new pillow and tossed it onto the bed. Then I assembled the cardboard boxes we’d fought over, and filled them with Sawyer’s belongings.
When the bookshelf was ready, we maneuvered it into the far corner of the room, and Dan bolted it to the wall. I unpacked the four boxes of books Sawyer had brought, and carefully lined them up in alphabetical order by author’s last name. I wanted to do more. I looked around. My eyes landed on the brown cardboard box holding Desiderata we’d hidden between the bed and desk. I’d wanted it to be a surprise he’d find once we were gone, but now I couldn’t help myself. I opened the box and unwrapped the print framed on a strong aluminum backing and climbed onto Sawyer’s bed with it and propped it against the new pillow. I knew Sawyer would be overcome to see this talisman in his new dorm room. I hoped it would show him just how much care we had taken to try to make this new place feel like home.
By about 10:15 p.m., Sawyer bounded back into his room, and thanked us for the rug, the bookshelf, the books organized just so, and the storage boxes. With my eyes I gestured toward Desiderata, and when he caught sight of it propped on his bed he smiled big. But he was not overcome the way I expected and even hoped he would be. As the moment passed I realized that Desiderata was more a gift for me and Dan, a way to reassure us that our son would have a tangible piece of home with him as he made his way out into this new life he’d be leading without us. We hugged Sawyer goodnight and drove back to our Airbnb, where we plodded up the stairs and dropped into this strange bed, physically spent and still a little bit weary from the earlier tension between us.
Our final day at Reed was full, with presentations designed to inspire, inform, and reassure us parents. After years of putting on such talks on my campus I felt simultaneously like a veteran and a newbie getting to finally go through orientation as a parent. I nodded knowingly at familiar concepts articulated with fresh nuance. My heart surged with pride to be joining this new community. Tears filled my eyes again and again but did not spill. At lunch in the dining hall we got an unexpected gift. Sawyer walked up to our table and said, “I was going to eat with my friends, but they’re all sitting with their parents so I guess I’ll eat with you guys.” Dan and I made eye contact over the unspoken realization: He already has friends. I know better than to cry in my son’s college dining hall so I swallowed hard, smiled, and looked away as Sawyer sat down beside us and dug into his lunch.
The day wrapped up with the "Big Hug Goodbye” scheduled for 6-6:15 p.m. Dan and I walked over to Sawyer’s dorm and texted him. He came down the three flights to let us in, and then we tromped back upstairs behind him carrying the bag of his favorite groceries we’d promised as a parting gift. We looked around the room, tried to get some detail on what he’d been doing all day, and tossed a few final bits of advice into the air. I checked the time—6:10—and announced it was time for us to go. Dan and Sawyer hugged for a good long while, and wiped tears from their cheeks as they parted. Now it was my turn. I scrunched up my face and hugged Sawyer, and whispered “Love you my baby” into his ear as I held him tight. “Love you, too,” he said, pressing his head against my neck. Then I pulled back and checked the time. 6:13. I held Sawyer by the shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, “It’s time to go.” I motioned to Dan that we should leave. Sawyer said, "No wait, I'm coming with you. I’m going to wave you goodbye."
It's hard to hold back tears like these. Tears of, "I love who you are. I love who we are. Will we be us without you? Will you be you?”
The three of us walked down the hill and Dan and I got in the rental car. Sawyer began to wave as we rolled down our windows and stuck our hands out to wave back at him. He jogged down the sidewalk following us as we picked up speed. At the corner he stopped and was still waving as we turned. I was both overcome and ecstatic seeing my grown man of a son in my side mirror saying goodbye to us, the visitors, standing with his feet firmly planted on his new ground.
Godspeed, my son. Here's to your next adventure. I love you doesn't even come close.