College-bound kids leave a void filled with mixed emotions

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

Twenty-nine years ago, my father penned these words in a church newsletter as he watched my younger sister pack for college. Then, as now, he speaks to dads and their daughters as he captures that life-changing moment with, “The Emptiness of an Emptying Nest.”

She’s your youngest, the last of what once had been a triangle of three. You watch as she packs her belongings, taking some clothes off the hangers, then in indecision puts them back with the explanation, “I won’t need this until cold weather.”

Standing before an array of cosmetics, hair curlers, and all those do-dads of feminine scaffolding, you watch her pick-and-choose, wondering how in heaven’s name she’ll ever get it all in her little car!

You stand helplessly, watching as her mother does all those mother-things that only mothers can do, and you ponder what you could do, maybe ought to be doing.

You think perhaps a book from you might help. You busy yourself writing an inscription on the flyleaf, fighting back tears as you write, realizing what challenge, joy, life, and love the youngest one has brought to your life.

The car is finally loaded, and you mean loaded! Clothes, books, and the hundred-and-one things little girls accumulate over the years and declare necessities, cause the car to swing low to the concrete which you know will bump the bumper when she pulls out of the driveway–and it does.

Then you see the big teddy bear perched on top of the clothes in the back seat, and you smile. The tug the teddy bear makes on your heart also signals that there may be a woman at the wheel in the front seat, but in the backseat–and behind all the woman-ness–there is still part of that little girl who used to snuggle in your lap like a live teddy bear. And you’re glad, and you hope that part of “that little girl” will live on and on and on.

The final picture is shuttered with your camera. You and her mother stand helpless, watching her maneuver the car that has been passed-down the family three times out of the driveway into the street. There’s the final wave, and the first tear. You’ve been holding that tear because she asked you the night before to “please don’t cry until I’m gone.”

Back in the empty house you walk to three empty bedrooms, look at three smiling faces on photograph paper. And for the first time in your life, you know the gut feelings of the famous (infamous?) “empty-nest syndrome.”

And you are hurting.

Somehow her Persian cat senses the loss, and curls in a furry ball on the floor when normally he would have been out doing whatever it is that cats do on a cool, fall-approaching morning.

And the family German Shepherd seems to feel your grief, and parks himself in docile fashion at your feet while you mobilize grief on your typewriter, sharing your feeling with thousands of known and unknown readers who somehow will know and understand the emptiness a father feels when he first touches the prickly edges of the empty nest.