It is that time of year in Minnesota. Wherever you are in our state - on your back porch, stepping out of your car at the mall, or stuck in traffic - you will suddenly hear a far-off honking. Instinctively you will look up, searching the sky for geese headed south. It is the season of departures.
As surely as the coming of autumn pulls the geese southward, the passing of time and seasons pulls our children from our homes and toward their futures.
Recently my son and I took to the sky for points west - caught, like our boisterous feathered friends, in the inevitable force of migration. With the whine of jet engines replacing the whoosh of wings, our trip to Portland, Ore., was faster and noisier than any made by a goose - but like our more graceful brothers and sisters, we had the sense of being moved by something beyond our understanding.
Upon arrival at the tiny dorm room that was our destination, we set about doing the many trivial things that need to be done to begin life in college: assembling shelves, wiring up computers, getting stereo systems together, building lofts, laying carpet, making sure the halogen floor lamp has its safety shield properly installed, getting clothes organized in the closet. Our busy hands were a feeble attempt to take our minds off the fearsome power of time.
In helping our fledglings with their first solo migration, we parents do nothing we have not done for these children thousands of times before, but - judging by the forced smiles, nods, and frowns exchanged among parents - it is clear that we all know something different is happening here.
Small favors take on new significance when done in too-hot, first-year dorm rooms.
In "Our Town," one of Thornton Wilder's characters comments that if we looked - really looked - at the meaning of the many things we do each day, it would be too much to bear. Only now, after transplanting my son from home to a campus half a continent away, can I begin to understand what Wilder was talking about.
A couple of times, for just a few seconds each - amid the frustration of ethernet cards that wouldn't work and too few outlets - I looked, really looked, at myself and my fellow parents. What I saw was truly awe-filled: These most mundane of parental tasks were freighted with a constant desire to wrap your arms around your child and tell him how much you love him, with a wish for more time - time to teach your child all the things you have learned about life.
Thinly veiled by these little tasks, things our kids could do with their eyes closed, were two decades of affection, pride, and love. The fights over messy rooms and staying out late without calling? The shouting matches about body piercings, money, and jobs? All these dissolved in efforts to be helpful.
Wilder was right. It was too much to bear. The best we can do is to say, "Let me run to the store and get you some more hangers, dear." Small acts hide torrents of affection.
Sitting on my Minnesota porch and hearing the geese overhead, it occurs to me that the best we parents can do is to submit to this overwhelming force. These migrations are part of our becoming, for our children and for us. The grief of separation brings us to a new season in life, to a deeper understanding of our place on this planet.
So you are gone. And we are here, hurting and happy, our sadness affirming our love for you. Are you sure you don't need some more hangers?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society