Facebook postings these days are littered with children posing before their first day of school.
Elementary school kids have big smiles, backpacks and themed lunch boxes. Those in the middle-school range are working hard not to look like they’re working hard at being cool. The high schoolers’ expressions reveal a restrained impatience at this embarrassing annual ritual.
After three decades of being one of those parents who insisted on a last-minute pose from my children before launching them into a new school year, I think I may have taken the last of such photos: my youngest posing (awkwardly) in front of his dormitory on the campus of Western Kentucky University.
The coming of this day was as subtle as a train roaring down a track. I ignored it mostly, or assured myself and others that after four kids this was old hat.
I even bragged that we were already measuring his room for new furniture. (Not really.) Dread? Nah.
So I was caught off guard at the undetected wave of emotion that knocked me off my feet.
Steven, of course, was raring to go. He declined our offer to arrange the carload of stuff we’d lugged into his dorm room. We then suggested that we grab some dinner with him before we headed home.
But he explained that he was late to get to a sign-up booth, so we said a quick goodbye, and he turned and suddenly was gone.
And just like that, an era ended.
We know he’ll be home often, of course, along with his laundry basket, which gives the illusion that this is nothing more than an extended summer camp.
But we all know there’s something decidedly different about a child going off to college. They may come home, but it’s never quite the same. Home becomes home base, but no longer quite home.
I’m fine, even very happy for him and this new venture in his life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So I’m surprised at how it bumps miscellaneous buttons in my heart and moves it up into my throat, which causes my eyes to water.
I think of my parents waving goodbye to me as I drove off in my 1965 Opal Cadet station wagon, filled with my life’s possessions, oh so ready to begin college.
I think of taking each of my children to their first day of real school, of letting go of their hand and letting the system claim some piece of them.
I think of times in recent days when I’ve thought to myself in exasperation, “How much longer do I have to be a parent? College, come quickly!” which induces a wave of regret. Did I get the most of our time together? Did I squander these unique years?
It also causes me to admit that the truth of the old cliché – time flies – may be understood uniquely by those who sit in the seats of experience.
Days may pass slowly, but years pass quickly.
And therein may be a guide to life.
In the day-to-day, it’s easy to gripe and take offense about one thing or another. But when days become years, when eras come and go, one has a different vantage from which to evaluate the importance of this or that issue.
In the end, it seems all that matters is love.
No one loves perfectly, of course. Our love gets distorted and controlling, and it needs realigning more than the tires of a car. But still, love fuels life. In a sense, life isn’t life without love.
Love creates the dexterity to adapt to new eras in relationships. It adjusts to new realities. Its shape modifies as needs change.
Love transcends the years, finding life’s deepest joy in giving rather than receiving, in willing the wholeness and life of another.
Love is able to let go – of a child, a parent, a partner – trusting that what is loved is never lost.
Love finds its way home again.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.