Life Transitions: Taking My Son To College

When we came home from taking our oldest son to college last week, it was to a dark house. I walked upstairs, looked into his room, and saw that the light was on. He often leaves his light on. So I walked into my boy's now vacated room and turned off his bedside light. It was a sad moment.

Both Joy and I are very proud of our new college freshman and very happy with the remarkable school he has chosen and has welcomed him. We are glad to see him so happy. He is at a place where he is feeling "excited," he kept saying, to begin his adult life, explore his way into the vocation he will feel called to, figure out his own faith journey, and, of course, play baseball (the love of his life) on a great college team. He is ready. But despite receiving compliments from others about helping him be so ready, we are both really feeling the changes, and the losses, of this great transition.

The president of his new college hosted a reception for the parents after we said our goodbyes to our children, and I told him afterward how "pastoral" he was for a couple of us pastor parents. He recalled that Elizabeth Stone quote: Having children is like choosing to have your heart outside of you and walking around, and said how counterintuitive it is for parents to ever leave their child -- to do what we were about to do for the first time.

The goodbyes were significant and very meaningful. "Mom, put your sunglasses on," he said. When I said, "I love you Luke," he and I both knew it was from the bottom of my heart and that there is nothing I meant more. And I knew the return "I love you Dad," from an almost 18-year-old young man looking right into my eyes was without reservation too.

We both have a great deal of trust for our son as he enters into a new life and schedule where he will be making his own decisions. He has always made good decisions and even helped the decisions of those around him. "Do what Luke does," other parents would sometimes tell his friends.

But even with our love and trust so intact with him, our regular daily interactions will be so different now. I remember when I did about 200 talks a year, speaking almost every week across the country and the world. But as two children came into my life and moved from being toddlers to boys becoming young men, I became much more selective about my speaking engagements. Coaching their Little League baseball teams -- for 11 years and 22 seasons -- was a deeply bonding experience for our whole family, as their mother became the league commissioner alongside their dad coach. It also connected us to all our boys' best friends and families; our house, deliberately chosen because it was actually right next to the baseball field, became the "clubhouse" for everybody.

Most importantly, I got to put my boys to bed most nights of their lives. Almost every night, we would say a prayer and goodnight with at least quick conversations about the day, the next day, or baseball. That's why it was hard to turn off the bedside light when we came home -- without being able to say goodnight.

Of course we have texted and talked since he began his new life at college, will do so regularly, and are already planning for fall break, Thanksgiving, and other visits. We went through the schedule on the way up in the car and he very sensitively added up all the breaks and vacation times he would be home with us and said, "I'll still be home almost five months out of the year!" -- of course, great news for us.

But this is indeed the big transition of becoming an adult -- that's what the college years have become for those who have the opportunity to go. My liturgically minded Episcopal priest wife has since reflected that a "rite of passage" would be helpful -- especially for the parents, as she has talked with many of our friends going through the same thing.

As we walked the beautiful campus, saw and heard of all the resources available there, I couldn't help but think about all the kids who still don't have that choice and opportunity. Education really is the key resource, beyond family and faith, for human thriving and success. And those of us who have just taken our kids to college must redouble our own efforts to make education the affordable human right it needs to be for all of our children -- because they all are our children.

As his mother tearfully pointed out during our dinner together on the way home, Luke won't need us every day the way he has for so long. But he will now need us in different ways. And watching him grow, mature, make important decisions, choose his life direction, start and learn to love his own family, beginning to live into this new life will add whole new dimensions to ours, and to our relationship with him.

Our 13-year-old son, Jack, was to have a sleep over with a friend that night but called us to say he wanted to come home instead. That brought smiles to both our faces, and we both helped put him to bed and say goodnight. Here we go again.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.