A letter to those parents sending their kids off to college for the first time

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

As colleges gear up, plucking graduated seniors from the grips of home, I’m reprinting excerpts from a 1977 letter my father wrote after I began my freshman year. Two years ago, I launched my firstborn onto her college journey. As I reread Dad’s thoughts, they could have been my own. This piece is dedicated to all parents who will wrestle with never-before-experienced emotions.

To my friend Joe Legion, upon the occasion of his oldest daughter’s matriculation as a college freshman.

Dear Joe:

I know, really know, what you’re going through. This is your first. Last year I sat where you sit.

She is excited. You’re not. She has been packing all summer. The little things she held in common with the rest of the family she must now have for herself — toothpaste, hairdryer, coffeemaker, shampoo, dictionary. There’s something scary and final when they start getting their own things that once spelled family ownership.

You’ll load the station wagon and the whole family squeezes in for the trip. The family dog presses his nose against the screen door, looking rejected and whimpering as lonely as you feel.

Your sagging car’s bumper makes a harsh and chilling final sound, scrapping its way onto the street leading her “way, way from home.”

The family makes light talk and jokes. But the closer you get to that institution which will separate you from your first-born, the conversation slows.

You pull the loaded wagon into a much-too-small space along with other parents who chatter, masking their real feelings. And you all wonder where all the years have gone.

She makes quick friends with laughing girls in the hall. You leave them for awhile and stroll through campus, remembering 25 years ago when you were ushered into that new and different world of college. You know that it’s different now. More pressures, more to learn, more freedom.

But you also know she will struggle with age-old challenges that have not changed — love, courtship, learning to belong, finding her place, finding herself, searching for her role in life.

You’ll hold the tears, Joe, until you’re headed home. Then they’ll come. Let ’em come. They are the interest you pay on the loan of a child God gave you to love, teach and send into life with values to live life.

Trust your teaching. You will find, and she will, too, that you did better than you think.

As the tears blur your vision of the winding road back home, you will know that you have entered a new era — something has died! But something is being born. Nothing new can be born until something old has died. It is in dying that new life can be born.

She’s on her own now. New doors will open. New relationships established.

She’ll make some mistakes. She’ll hurt; pain will come. But know that there can be no real growth without pain; no maturity without hurt. Trust the process.

But now, Joe, it’s not easy. Her room is empty and twice as big. You’ll look at it every night, asking, “Why does it hurt so? Why does it have to be this way?”

And the answer, Joe, is: “When we love, we hurt. When we love, we let them go.”

That won’t help your hurting. Nothing will.

But it’s comforting to know, as you turn over for sleep, that she is God’s child, too — and in His hands.