A bittersweet college send-off leaves parents with an empty nest

Empty nesters sending kids to college experience a fog of nostalgia when they walk into their child's empty room after dropping them off at university. Hopefully, that fog will soon lift. 

Peter Zheutlin
With the trunk packed to the gills with the contents of his son's bedroom, Peter Zheutlin prepares to say goodbye to his youngest son and embark on a new chapter of his own life in his empty nest, August 21, 2013.

The car is packed. Actually, both cars are packed and ready for tomorrow’s journey west from Boston to Ithaca, NY. Tomorrow my wife Judy and I officially become empty nesters as our youngest child, Noah, heads off for his freshman year at Ithaca College. Barring a spectacular academic or emotional meltdown, it’s just going to be the two of us now. Oh, and Albie, our yellow lab, too.

To say I have mixed emotions tonight is like saying Alex Rodriguez is in a little bit of trouble. I’m excited for my son, nervous about his transition and some of his life skills (on this last night when asked if he had any final laundry to throw in he handed me all the clean clothes I washed and folded yesterday, still unable to tell laundered clothes from dirty ones), melancholy that this part of life – so filled with hard work, joy, and angst – is closing, leaving only senior citizenship as the next major phase of life yet to be lived.

When your children are young lots of people tell you the time will go fast. That can be hard to imagine on those nights when sleepless children leave you reeling the next morning desperate for some shut-eye. It can be hard to fathom that the time required to make thousands of meals, dress them for school on countless mornings, pack them up for camp and vacations for eighteen summers could ever be described as having flown by. But the old cliché is so true: the days pass slowly, but the years? They rush by in a blur. I’ve been on airplane flights that seemed longer than the past eighteen years.

But having an older son, one who just graduated from college last spring, I also know that you’re always a parent with a parent’s concerns. Though he is very independent and, luckily, gainfully employed, we worry, we support, we try to nurture still. I didn’t understand it when the boys were young, but parenthood is forever.

I also know that even when they’ve gone off to college, they’re home a lot. Breaks, summer vacations, and even as temporary live-in residents as they wait for the lease on their new apartment to begin. So, tomorrow is a big marker, a day that will be both joyful and wistful, but it isn’t the end, really. It’s another of those rites of passage that give definition to our lives.

But tell me that when the dorm room is all set up and it’s time to get in the car and drive east. When we returned home after dropping our older son at school in New Orleans four years ago, I walked into the room where I had rocked him to sleep on my shoulder as a baby, where I later read him Harry Potter, and where I comforted him after he and his first girlfriend broke up. I was stunned and overcome. It seemed as if he’d just arrived and now he was gone. But within a few days, once we knew he was settled and happy, the fog lifted.

Tonight the fog has rolled in again. Hopefully, in about a week’s time, it will lift again.

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