Tears flow when last child goes off to college

Even though that happened 20 years ago, the memory of a daughter moving on remains

By George Valadie

It was that ugly sort of cry. Probably would have been pretty disconcerting to anyone who happened by, though thankfully no one did.

Nancy had run down to the store, and there I was. Alone in our garage, sitting on one of those minivan bench seats, the one we had temporarily removed from the vehicle we had rented.

I wasn’t exactly sitting there contemplating life as much as I was slumped over and heaving, crying like a baby.

Letting it out.

Nancy and I and the rental van had just returned from delivering Sarah, our youngest, to her first year of college. She was our third and last.

I thought I was going to make it. We’d said our goodbyes, driven our 14 hours, carried in all the luggage, and were doing just fine, thank you.

And then she called just to check in.

Said she was doing fine, had made it through her first night of dormitory independence. She was more comfortable with her roommates, liked her room a lot, and loved her meal plan. Not in that order.

That’s all it took, and I lost it. Though that moment happened almost 20 years ago, I can recall the garage, the bench seat, and those tears as if it all happened just yesterday.

The drive was much shorter with our oldest, and I didn’t even make it home, not even close—nearly drowned myself with the tears I was trying to hold in so my wife wouldn’t see.

Turns out she’d been doing the same.

Ditto our middle child. And she was getting to attend the school of her dreams. Thrilled. Blessed. Excited beyond excited.

Still, I wept as if we’d taken her to prison and would never see or hear from her again.

All these memories have returned because of my social media and the many moms (and a few dads) posting photos of dropping their own students off. Some for their first year of higher ed, some for the final go-round.

Though not yet ready for college, others—including our own daughters—have posted pics of their children heading off for their first day of the new school year. Hoping. Praying.

Of the many boxes of photos we have, I hate to admit we don’t have a single one of any of our kids’ first day of grade school, high school, or college.

The college drop-off shots I’ve been seeing are all so happy—plenty of cute bedspreads and organized desktops, beaming smiles, and lingering hugs. I’m sure we looked the same.

I can’t help wondering if any of these families’ senior years had been like a couple we’d experienced. With Sarah, I seem to recall I spent a lot of time riding her about her inattention to school and her obsession with the computer. She said I was way too judgmental and far too impatient.

I was right; so was she.

Like many leaving for school, we knew our child had a wealth of ability, but it was a guarded confidence.

Even Sarah doubted Sarah.

For the last month leading up to the big move, I dreaded the moment we would get in the car to leave for home.

I wasn’t sure if it would be Sarah or Nancy or both, but I knew one of them wasn’t going to make it. There would be tears and plenty of them. Turned out they were mine.

I had spent the last two weeks pep-talking both Sarah and her mother.

Yes, Sarah, you can do this. Yes, honey, she will be fine. Yes, Sarah, you will love college. Yes, honey, she will be fine. Yes, Sarah, we’ll see you at fall break. Yes, honey, she will be fine.

Both had good reason to worry.

I wonder how many moms and dads have spent these last few weeks cram-coursing laundry, colors and whites, hot and cold, dry and don’t you dare?

I recall a few years ago when one of our moms appeared at school, her son’s homework in hand. He’d done it, left it on the printer, and called in a panic. “Pleeeeeassseee bring it to me . . . without it I won’t graduate.”

Speaking to no one in particular, she offered, “What’s he going to do next year—I can’t go to college with him. I don’t know if he can make it without me.”

But with a wry smile, she added, “But I can’t wait to see him try.”

With all the contemporary world’s interconnectivity, it’s a far different experience than when I went to college. My mom dropped me off, and we wrote a bunch of letters.

I knew long-distance phone calls cost more, so I didn’t actually hear her voice again until mid-October. I boldly called “collect” one Sunday evening, and she offered, “George, you don’t have to wait six weeks before you call again.”

We spoke every Sunday night for the next four years.

Our kids, however, called a lot—and we were grateful. We really were. Mostly.

It was good to hear about their lives, their classes, their friends, and their shenanigans (the ones they’d share). But they weren’t all happy calls. Meg, our middle daughter, would call, usually late at night—this time the tears were hers—to tell her mom about some guy or some test or some college disaster that had befallen her.

Nancy would hang up and say, “George, you’ve got to go up there; she’s just a wreck.”

“Honey, it’s 11:30, and she’s 14 hours away!”

Nanc would check in the next day, “How you doing, Meg?”

“Fine, why do you ask?”

“Because you called last night, and I was really worried about you. I even told your father he had to drive up there. I bet I was up half the night.”

“Oh, I’m good. We went out and had pizza and everything’s good.”

Katy, our oldest, had similar calls. A guy had broken her heart, her bank account broke ours. And I really did make the drive to check on her.

In the big scheme of life, the whole experience comes close to bordering on the silly. The fear, the dread, the sadness.

If you have done it, you know we are blessed to get to participate in this one little arc of the circle of life. Children growing up, children moving on.

We should be celebrating, thankful for the sort of blessings and gifts that make such an experience possible.

Moms and dads realizing their children aren’t so much children anymore.

The final piece of that story from 20 years ago comes from my wife. Nanc and I were getting adjusted to the empty house when she finally shared her feelings about Sarah’s leaving.

For the previous 25 years, she’d viewed herself as having only one major task: raising our three girls.

“It occurs to me that I’m done,” she lamented. “You’ve had your coaching and your teaching, your students and your staff, and you still do. But this was my job. And now I’m done.”

“Oh, come on, dear,” I offered, “you know you’ll never really be finished. There’s plenty they still need you to do.”

“True,” she said, “but I’m a big hunk of done.”

I was right; so was she.

Dear God – They need us more than ever; but mostly, they need you. Please stay as close as you can. Amen.


George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.

Comments 1

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Touched my heart. This is the longest I have gone without seeing Jacob. I miss him dearly. We are visiting tomorrow.
    Thank you for all you did in his 4 yrs at ND🍀🍀

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