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Family Life

The hardest farewell comes after college

Wendy Redal

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This spring, my husband and I hit the road for Utah with our Alaskan malamute, bound for the red rock desert to spend a few nights camping and hiking in the arroyos and slot canyons of the San Rafael Swell.

It’s wondrous country. Layers of sandstone lie stacked and swirled in stripes of rust, pink, maroon and beige, ancient rock beneath a cloudless cobalt sky. At dusk, a full moon rose bright over the cliffs above our tent, belying the coming of night.

The experience was idyllic — yet I felt melancholy.

This was the first time we'd camped without our kids. Exploring the backcountry of the American West comprised most of our family adventures over the past couple decades, starting with my son’s first overnight in a tent when he was seven weeks old. When he went off to college, we looked forward to every school break and the chance to ski or backpack. His younger sister is away at school now, and I anticipate her every trip home.

But it’s different now that my son has graduated and is on his own. He moved 2,000 miles away from our home in Colorado to pursue a budding career as a videographer in Miami where his girlfriend attends medical school. While I still get to book my daughter’s flights back for holidays and breaks, my son’s plans are now wholly his own.

Last fall, for the first time, I asked my 23-year-old firstborn, “Will you be coming home for Christmas?”

“Of course,” he said. And as an independent filmmaker on his own schedule, he ended up being able to stay for two weeks. But what we took for granted during the college years — the comfortable assumption that “home” is still here, with us — is no longer the reality.

When your child is a student, there's a lot many parents are still doing: Paying tuition. Consulting on housing and meal plan options. Checking in about registration and majors, study abroad and graduation timetables. Reminding them to make (or making for them, I confess) dentist and eye doctor appointments during breaks.

While all the advice seems directed at how to handle the emotions of sending your child off to college, perhaps a greater challenge comes when they graduate. I’ve found that the empty nest doesn’t really feel empty until the fledglings are flying on their own.

I wish I could conclude with an insight, a nugget of wisdom I’ve gleaned through all this meditating on change and loss. But so far, I don’t have one. I just know that the stars glitter in the desert night sky, and they are still beautiful, even if I am lonelier.

My son earned his bachelor’s degree in visual journalism and history last year. For his final summer term, he landed a newspaper photography internship that cemented his credentials for future work. And in the year since he wore that cap and gown, he has been largely self-sufficient. With no little awe, my husband and I watched him move to Florida, find an apartment, pay rent on time, become the official owner of our 2007 Toyota Corolla with 160,000 miles on it, secure his own car insurance, book his own flights and file his own taxes. He’s still on our healthcare and cell phone plans, but by all other measures he’s an independent, thriving young adult.

We should be proud. (We are.) And relieved. (We are.) And happy. (I’m trying.)

I am happy for my son. All his hard work is paying off. He is pursuing his dreams. Unlike many millennials, he isn’t struggling with post-graduation depression and anxiety, unable to find a job or weighed down by heavy debt. His dad and I aren’t worried about “failure to launch.” All has transpired as it’s supposed to.

But sometimes I find myself wishing we were one of those families from a culture where multiple generations live under one roof —where it’s the norm to share dinners together even when kids become adults, to gather on Sundays for a picnic in the park, and not to expect that independence has to mean distance.

I’ve even found myself hoping just a little, when my son complains of the Miami heat and humidity, that he might want to escape to Colorado this summer. “You could stay here for a few weeks,” I ventured, “save some money.” It’s not that I don’t know what to do with myself now that my kids are away, or that my life isn’t full — on the contrary. I just miss them.

Truth be told, if my son still lived at home, I’m sure we’d be on each other’s nerves the way we were when he was in high school, and when college breaks started to feel a little too long. The fact that I can no longer assume when — or if — he’ll come back may be a good thing, ultimately, as it reminds me that when he does return, he wants to.

I know when my daughter will be coming home. And she’s still financially dependent on us, for a while longer, at any rate. But my son is now a free agent. My daily devotion to him is done, except in my heart.

At the same time that he begins to carve his place in the adult world, the generational wheel turns further as my parents take leave of this world. While my dad died 18 years ago of cancer at age 61, my stepfather recently succumbed to pneumonia at 86 after struggling with several ailments. My mom will be 79 this summer, and my stepmother just turned 80. Mortality feels palpable.

A friend commented that this season of life is when we, in middle age, become orphans. Our children leave us, and our parents leave us — too often at the same time.

I wish I could conclude with an insight, a nugget of wisdom I’ve gleaned through all this meditating on change and loss. But so far, I don’t have one. I just know that the stars glitter in the desert night sky, and they are still beautiful, even if I am lonelier.


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Wendy Redal is a writer, editor and marketing communications specialist based in Boulder, Colorado. She is the editorial director for Natural Habitat Adventures, a global nature and wildlife travel company focused on conservation tourism. Wendy and her husband are the parents of two recent college graduates.
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