Saturday, August 31, 2013


As I prepared for the beginning of the fall semester, I watched through my office window as this scene unfolded. Three people:  a new student, a mother, and a father. Father embraces son, then backs away so the mother can get her goodbye hug. I keep my eyes on the dad, an athletic looking fellow wearing a baseball cap. As he steps away from his son, his shoulders drop, and his hands move to his face to wipe away, not sweat though it is a humid day in Oregon, but tears. The dad stretches his arms high above his head. He removes the baseball cap, placing his other hand over his eyes. Mom, who has just finished a long embrace with her son, notices and hands him a tissue.

Transitions. Goodbyes, see you laters, and godspeeds.

They happen all the time. When you reach my stage of life, you've seen--and experienced--a lot of them. As I shared vicariously this family's moment, I thought of some of my own most poignant goodbyes. Like saying goodbye, for the last time, to first my mom, then my dad. Those goodbyes have a finality to them like no other, and you never forget. My mom's been dead for 10 years, but I still catch myself occasionally picking up the phone to call her on Saturday mornings, as I did every Saturday for 28 years.

Many goodbyes between parents and kids contain a mixture of excitement and sadness. I'm sure the parents I watched hugging their boy outside Minthorn Hall were excited about the opportunities ahead for their son. I'm sure they were also beginning to face the reality of what their lives would be now without him as a consistent presence in their home.

Goodbyes become harder when you're not totally comfortable with the transition your child is undergoing. One of my all-time toughest goodbyes was to my daughter as I left her in a remote Alaskan town for her first teaching job. The principal at the high school told me that they closed school when temps reached 40 below. This information was not comforting to me. My wife, who rode back to Oregon with her after she completed her teaching year, later told me that if she had been the parent on the trip up, she would not have left our daughter there.

As I watched the family outside my office window, I also reflected on my role as a college teacher. At some point in my college days, I remember being introduced to the in loco parentis concept. It's the idea that faculty and administrators at colleges and universities function, to some extent, in place of the parents. As a student, I thought the concept was a sneaky way to justify policies I didn't like, such as curfew. But my years as a teacher have led me to believe there's more to the in loco parentis idea than that. I think of the faculty members at my undergraduate college who opened their offices to me and listened, with interest and without judgment, to my hopes and doubts about God, and church, and life. I think about scores of students in my 21 years in higher education that I've connected with, and I hope, mentored. And I think about the 23 students in my First Year Seminar class, who I met for the first time on Friday after they had said goodbye to their parents, and I hope I can connect with a few of them. (I did promise to do anything I could for them--except lend them money.) I guess I believe that part of my role is to ease the transition a bit by trying to be, not a substitute parent, but a good listener and co-learner with my students.

I'm not sure why these thoughts of goodbyes and transitions are so much with me these days. Maybe it's because our youngest son graduated from college last spring and was the last one to move out of the house. Or maybe it's because our older son will get married in a few months--another transition. Though both of these are joyful transitions, they are also, as all parents know, filled with sorrow that we are letting go of people we love, and that our lives will never be the same again. And even though we know the letting go is right and good and necessary, a part of us still hates it. Or maybe I'm just a sentimental fool, as my much younger friend called herself in a recent blog post.

I suspect, however, that I'm not alone. A colleague posted on Facebook that looking at the photos of new student and parent goodbyes on the college's web page made her cry as she anticipated the time when her sons would make the same transition.

As I reflected on the family saying their goodbyes outside my office, it occurred to me that I've probably not been sensitive enough to those who were saying goodbye to me as I took off on a new adventure. Often the person leaving has a lot to be excited about and a lot to look forward to. That excitement about the future can sometimes overshadow the sadness of parting. Perhaps, then, it's the parents who have the toughest road ahead in this scenario. 

It reminds of a day long ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Janet and I had married three months earlier. We had loaded all our earthly possessions in my orange VW Super Beetle and were driving to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I would begin my Master's program. We had said our goodbyes to her mom and dad with hugs and many tears. While I think I understood something of what her parents must have been feeling as they watched this guy drive away with their only daughter, taking her to a place far away, I now realize--because of the goodbyes I've said since--that I really didn't have a clue.

Had I been choosing the background music that day, it would have been Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."  I now understand the song that was actually playing on the radio as we pulled away was much more appropriate. It was Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain."