I’ve spent the past few weeks — well, honestly, it’s been a lot longer than that — thinking about what to say to the boy when we drive him downtown to his dorm Thursday afternoon, unload an SUV full of clothes and electronics and turn around to come home without him.
Mary Jo and I have been moving toward this moment for almost 19 years. We’ve seen it coming. We’re as prepared as we can be.
But, still, it’s going to be messy. Again, you live with someone that long, you go through all that screaming and all that loving, all that “Luke, get up!” and “Luke, go to sleep!” and “Luke, eat your mashed potatoes” and “Luke make your bed” and “Luke clean your room” and “Make sure you text us, Luke” and “Are you studying, Luke?” and “I told you to send that email last week, Luke” and “Luke, you need to be home by midnight” and “I’ll wait up for Luke,” and suddenly … nothing?
All that’s left now, besides the packing (and I’m staying the hell out of that), is figuring out those searing words of wisdom that I’ll lay on him Thursday, that heartfelt “so long” that succinctly sums up all we’ve been trying to teach him for dang near two decades. Some meaningful last words that will send him into the world ready to absolutely kick it.
And I’m blank.
I have a file on my desktop, “For Luke,” that was created more than two years ago just for this purpose. I think the idea, at first, was to provide him with a bunch of inspirational words from a lot of famous people, on life and how to live it. I gathered a bunch, like:
Live the life you have imagined.
— Henry David Thoreau
Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
— Robert F. Kennedy
If you obey all the rules
You miss all the fun.
— Katherine Hepburn
They go on and on. Open up a Bartlett’s. You’ll get the idea.
I also listed a couple dozen platitudes that I hoped weren’t too shop-worn, words that I thought were appropriate. Words to live by. Words I like to try to live by:
- Live Boldly. Live Unregretfully. (That second one is hanging in our downstairs bathroom. I like it.)
- Embrace Change.
- Challenge Yourself.
- Don’t Settle.
- Be True to Yourself.
- Practice What You Preach.
- Be Honest. Always.
It was at that point, roughly two years ago, that I felt like throwing up. And if the whole idea wasn’t sitting well with me, then Luke — a kid who, as I’ve said before, can see a Dad lesson coming from 1,000 yards away and avoids it like mashed potatoes — would absolutely crush it.
ME: Here, Luke. I’ve made this for you. Words to live by. Words I like to try to live by.
LUKE: Thanks, pops. [Tosses it into a bin with a 25-foot USB cable, six unrecognizable computer parts, about 35 mechanical pencils, a Frisbee, a spare thumb drive and a quarter.]
So I’m still blank.
What do you say to a kid who’s leaving, who’s been such a big part of your family, your life, your actual being for 19 years, who’s been there darn near every morning and every night, and now simply won’t be? He simply won’t be.
What words can you pass on, what last-gasp wisdom can you spit out that you maybe missed?
What do I want him to know before the real world — or at least the real world of college — starts to push its own lessons on him?
How can I tell him to be careful — that real world, we know, can be a bear to navigate sometimes — and be bold? To take care of himself and take care of others? To be gracious but not to be pushed around? To strive for his best yet learn to fail?
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
This, it seems clear, is how we end up blubbering messes on drop-off day.
The simple answer, I guess, is to just play it straight and not get all wrapped up in it. To trust him and trust that what we’ve taught him will stick. To let him know that he’s loved and that we’re there for him.
But he knows that already. He knows it.
We’ve lived together closely, the three of us, since Luke unfolded into this world in late 1997, through all those years of “Luke do this” and “Luke do that.” One of the first words he learned — it might have been the first; I can’t remember, it’s so long ago — is the word family.
If there’s one thing that I absolutely know that he absolutely knows, it’s that we love him. That he is a literal and spiritual part of us. That no matter the distance between us, he always will be.
Thursday, after the boxes are unpacked and he’s settled into his tiny room and his new life at the Glenn Residence Hall at Georgia Tech, it’s probably best that I won’t have the words. I wouldn’t be able to get them out between blubbers anyway, I imagine. (A funny, beautiful piece on losing it on drop-off day, by Alexandra Rosas, is here.)
I will tell him, if I can, that I love him. I will tell him that this is no goodbye. I will tell him to grab every last ounce of what his new life has to offer.
And I will tell him — please, God, let me get this out through the sobs — to remember to call his mom. That, he should know, too.