The Long Goodbye

The Sampson clan drove to Eau Claire today, to deliver Ryan to his freshman year of college. Our dropoff window was from noon to 2:00. We had a lot of very nice upperclassmen help us carry his things up to his room (4th floor!). As moving events go, it all went very well. We hooked up his tv, assembled his futon, and assessed the logistics of closet space, desk arrangement, and fan placement (no air conditioning!). We found a good spot for his coffee pot, made sure his internet connection was working, and ensured that he was in possession of important artifacts such as his student ID, debit card (so we can send him money!), and driver’s license. Most importantly, we made sure he knew where to go to ask questions, to connect him with people that would be able to help him figure out the rest of it.

After a long afternoon of wrestling a futon in 90 degree heat, the four of us went and had a little supper. We were tired, sweaty, and beat — wrung out from the heat and from our emotions. It was, in many ways, a typical family dining event. Lots of idle chit-chat – talking about things he needs to do, people he needs to meet, and things to avoid, such as public intoxication, foot fungus from the dorm showers, and how to not get all of his stuff ripped off. It was a lovely, small, family mealtime connection, just like the dinner table at home. We brought him back to the school, reconnected him to his new hive, and the four of us said our goodbyes. Then, three of us got in the van and drove away.

There has been a lot of leading up to this moment, for a lot longer than I realized. The last few weeks, since his high school graduation, have been a little strange. There has been a certain energy in our house, an odd combo platter of anxiety and anticipation, sadness and hope, fear and excitement, and ultimately, resignation to the inevitability of change, and the grief that comes with that. Each of us has worn this differently, and dealt with it in their own way.

My wife lost herself in the minutiae and details of planning – all of the forms that needed to be filled out, supplies that need to be provisioned, dates that needed to be hit – all in an effort to avoid having To Go There. She was the full-on wedding (college, in this case) planner and transition facilitator, and shepherded Ryan through the process from beginning to end. She was his coach, sounding board, motivator (i.e. butt-kicker), and confidant. Her coping mechanism was to stay busy and focused. She was extraordinary, yet never more than a blink away from going to that unwelcomed place – the thought of the day that he would leave.

Evan accepted all that he saw, and he did it without condition. He saw all the attention his brother received – from the fawning of his Mom and Dad, to having a giant party thrown in his honor, to all of the ceremonies and recognition and graduation money. He never expressed jealousy or resentment — not once. He’s a pretty perceptive ten-year old, and I think he saw what we were going through as a family, and its significance for his brother and also the rest of us. He could easily have complained, and we would have completely understood and not thought any less of him. Instead, he led with love.

Ryan clearly wore the weight of the change. It was thick on him, every day. It became heavier as we approached his departure. He’s a lot like me, introverted and emotional. Many of his friends moved away, some off to remote schools, and others for good, packing up and taking their families with them. He left many other close friends behind here in Minneapolis. I have seen him struggle in trying to process all that is going on, the disruption of the life he has known for so long, and the uncertainty of what comes next. He is excited to go, but the transition has been hard on him, no doubt.

For me, I too spent a lot of time trying not To Go There, trying not to imagine that moment, how we would feel when we were driving away. I was very frequently unsuccessful in my efforts. Like my wife, over the past few weeks, I’ve been prone to random bouts of strong emotions, often without warning or provocation. Along the way, I learned that it was the little things that have affected me the most — the small and unremarkable rhythms and routines of family life, that in my anticipation and grief, I knew would soon be irrevocably changed.

As our first born, all of our parent-child experiences with Ryan have been new, for all three of us. We have learned a lot together along the way. There are certain things that stick out in my mind, particularly the shared experiences that parents have with their first child — all the amazing and all awful. These things roll through my brain today.

I remember the day he was born. The room was dark and cold and dare I say, primal. The ebb and flow of the delivery. All the nurses and midwives in and out of the room. Peter Gabriel playing in the background. It is still, to this day, probably the most intense experience I have ever had.

I remember the first time I injured him, accidentally clunking his wobbly baby head while walking through a door, and how incredibly shitty and inept I felt afterwards.

I remember the first time he was stung by bees – two of them!

I remember his first friend, and his first day of school.

I remember his first broken heart, not from a girl, but because of a friend — when they were seven, who after a spat, told him he did not want to be friends any more (they eventually patched things up).

I remember the first time he went snowboarding, and my fear that he would bust his head.

I remember the time he crashed face-first into the wall at Roller Garden and knocked out two teeth.

I remember the great friendships that began to be fully formed in late elementary school, with many of the same kids he’s separating from today.

I remember the time he was playing basketball on his school’s team, and seeing him pull down a rebound and then drill a kid with a well-swung elbow, a la Bill Laimbeer. I felt a strange mix of aghast and admiration. The kid had been playing dirty and trash-talking, and Ryan had endured enough. I did not endorse the elbow, but I was very proud to see him stand up for himself after getting shoved around a bit.

I remember how gracefully he would run down and neutralize those would-be goal scorers, playing sweeper on his school’s soccer team.

I remember the first time I stumbled upon him kissing a girl. She had him pinned against a locker. He looked dizzy, and unsurprisingly, quite content. I paused at the spectacle, but all I could do was walk away, without saying a word.

I remember his first real heartbreak, and how hard it was to watch. I remember how hard his mom and friends worked to keep him whole while he was suffering so badly.

I remember him going to prom with his friend Chase….one of the two or three times I’ve been most proud of him.

I remember the thrill I felt seeing him on stage, playing drums, singing in choirs, and later, singing solos and tap dancing in cowboy boots.

I remember all of the teachers, friends, and parents of Ryan’s friends telling us over the years what a great kid we have, and how proud we should be of who he is.

I remember everything. All of it.

I also remember the moment, where as a parent, I realized that he wasn’t mine any more. We have a certain connection with our kids. As parents, for a long time, you are their best friend. Of course, this dynamic changes as your kids get older. I remember a moment, after dropping him off at a friend’s house, thinking that I would never have that same singular status in his life again, that they would from that point forward play a bigger role in his life than I would.

This was ok. This is exactly how it is supposed to work. But I also remember thinking at the time that this was the beginning of a long goodbye, a trigger of a chain of events that would eventually take us to what happened today. Despite all this, and all of my conflicted emotions, I can draw no other conclusion other than this: We have arrived at exactly the place we should be.

At dinner today there was a moment where he wondered aloud about how he would meet people at his new school (he goes to Eau Claire not really knowing anyone). We went through all of the opportunities he would have – meeting people in the dorm, classes, social activities, etc. In that moment, I flashed back to when he was six, which was the last time he started a new school. I thought about the very similar concerns he had back in 1st grade, about how he would get to know people, and how we assured him back then in the same way we were today. We told him the same thing that we told him twelve years ago: You Are Going To Be Fine.

We are all going to be fine.

That Moment