College move-in day: a dad’s heartfelt journey of letting go

This is the day we’ve spent the last 18 years preparing for. It’s the day we move my son, Jackson, in at the college of his choice — the University of Oklahoma. Which brings me to a rather pressing question: If I’ve known for so long that this day was coming, why do I feel so surprised by it all?

I mean, I’m a licensed counselor, so it couldn’t be denial . . . could it?

We just spent an entire school year checking off milestones to this very day. And while my wife has struggled with waves of sadness that whole time, I’ve been the tough one who has always reminded her, “This is what we’ve been planning for. There’d be something wrong if he didn’t grow up.”

I was steadfast. Consistent. Unwavering.

Why then did I just now notice that the hourglass was flipped, and the few grains of sand that remain are making their way through the neck with ever-increasing speed?

I still remember the emotion I felt the first time I held him as a baby. All day long the tears were just beneath the surface — not unlike today. I was so proud to be a dad — his dad — and so grateful that he was mine. We’ve had our share of ups and downs through the years, with both of us demonstrating our stubbornness and strong wills more times than I can count.

For several months now I’ve noticed as more and more new items were added to the collection of ‘college stuff’ in our dining room. I’m pretty sure we should’ve bought stock in the Container Store before the shopping frenzy began!

But that was just a bunch of new stuff. It wasn’t until I ventured upstairs on Sunday evening and saw him packing up his stuff that I suddenly felt this lump in my throat, and my eyes began to water.

The over-arching thought seems silly to even put in writing: “He’s taking his stuff?!”

As I looked at the various piles strewn about his bedroom — piles that I’m sure made perfect sense to him — I couldn’t help noticing that his stuffed Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse, a prized souvenir from our Disney vacation years earlier, would be left behind. And I get it. Those college dorm rooms aren’t that spacious. And he’ll be sharing that space with a roommate — someone I’ve never met.

My protective instinct is triggered, but this is how it goes. Jackson is an adult now, even though that’s a status I’m still processing.

Among the personal items that made the cut for dorm decor were a blue coin bank that I bought Jackson for Christmas a couple years ago — and a mosaic camel that I brought back from Israel in 2011. He told me it’s going with him because that’s his “favorite thing.” I never knew that.

Then my eyes fixed on the many Lego sets, now disassembled, labeled, and stored in large Ziploc bags. They are true relics of an earlier time when it wasn’t at all uncommon to hear the kind of sound effects that only boys can make. Jackson has always been a creative mind. His bedroom walls have been lined with those colorful Lego creations for years.

So many hours of tedious work had gone into the construction process. For a moment, I felt my heart skip a beat, as the parenting parallel came into view. How many family dinners? How many heartfelt prayers? How many bedtime stories, carpool hours, vacations, and sleepless nights have been invested in this child of mine?

Then part of a Bible verse darted through my mind with no warning whatsoever: “The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come.”

Indeed, we’re moving into a new season of life. And while Jackson’s 13-year-old sister remains at home (she’s incredibly excited about getting the bathroom to herself), there’s no denying that the dynamics of our family will never be quite the same. I’ve been around long enough to know how these things go.

While our influence as parents has been waning for quite a while, the inescapable reality is that in many ways Jackson is now on his own. It’s a truth that stokes both pride and fear in the heart of this dad.

In recent days I’ve found myself over-analyzing, re-thinking, and second-guessing 18 years of parenting. When I held that baby in my arms for the very first time, I promised God I would do my very best. But if I’m honest, I haven’t always followed through on that promise, despite the best of intentions.

There have been plenty of times when I’ve been too distracted, too exhausted, or too consumed with the problems of other people. I know that’s a normal part of life — especially in ministry — but it feels particularly unpleasant on this day.

There have been times when I’ve talked too much and listened too little. There have been times when I tried to fix a problem that only existed in my head. There have been mistakes, missteps, and misunderstandings.

Have I given him all the tools he needs to make wise decisions? Have I effectively taught him right from wrong? Have I set the kind of godly example that’s worth following? Does he know that he can come to me with any issue big or small, no matter what time of day or night?

Jackson is a good kid, but even good kids can make bad choices. I’m a textbook example of that. It’s times like this that I must remember another powerful truth: life isn’t all about making right choices; it’s also about learning and growing from the wrong choices and continuing to move forward one step at a time, knowing there’s nothing — absolutely nothing — that God can’t redeem.

Preparing to leave home hasn’t been easy for Jackson either. Over the last several days I’ve watched him say goodbye to his high school friends. Those relationships too will experience change. And yesterday as we prepared to get into our loaded vehicles, I saw him kiss MaggieDog on the head and tell her, “I love you,” his voice slightly cracking, “and I’ll see you later.”

I know that little dog well. She loves her boy. And I think she somehow knows how many times as a little boy Jackson begged for a puppy. I wonder how many nights Maggie will lay camped out in the kitchen, listening for the tell-tale grind of the garage door, waiting patiently for him to come inside and pat her on the head. What I really wonder is, how many nights before she loses hope?

It’s almost too much to bear — the harsh juxtaposing of Jackson’s enthusiasm and my sadness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for him too. And there would be something amiss if I weren’t excited to see him launch. But unlike bird parents who can keep an eye on their babies when they leave the nest, I feel a bit like we’re saying, “Good luck, kiddo. We’re outta here.” And with five hours between us, he’s going to get a real taste of independence — and the responsibility that comes with it.

As we help get the man-child settled here in Norman, I’m keenly aware that today is our turn for sweet words, long embraces, lots of love — and laughter too. And I’m reminded that this is what a healthy family does. Despite our numerous faults and failures along the way, we’ve gotten a lot of things right. One of those things is the practice and power of forgiveness. For all the other stuff, God’s grace is sufficient to fill in the gaps. I’m counting on that.

It’s going to be a long drive home tonight. And I’m the designated driver, because Michelle has already issued a Flash Flood Warning due to tears. There will be tears of sadness and tears of joy, and we won’t always be able to make the distinction. But you can bet that visibility will be impacted for a significant portion of the trip.

As a pastor, I do my fair share of hospital visits. And I always remind people that even ‘routine surgeries’ can be scary — because they’re not routine to them. In the same vein, even though millions of parents have experienced the very same thing we’re going through right now, this is new to us. And it’s a little unnerving.

So let me ask you to say a prayer — not just for us but also for all the other families who are embarking on a new journey and entering a new season of life — whatever that season may be. We need the prayers, wisdom, encouragement, and support of friends who care — and friends who can remind us that what we’re feeling is both normal and necessary. Letting go and starting over are hard to do.

Even though I know our family will never be the same, I’m strangely comforted in knowing that neither will the University of Oklahoma. After all, a six-foot-four red-head in size 14 cowboy boots can’t go unnoticed. I expect he’ll leave an imprint that extends well beyond the ubiquitous red clay soil.

Jackson, if you’re reading this, know that I love you, I’m incredibly proud of you, and I’ll always be your dad. Boomer Sooner!

8 thoughts on “College move-in day: a dad’s heartfelt journey of letting go

  1. Garrick, you have been and wonderful dad and Michelle a wonderful mother!! I can say that because I’ve know y’all for so long. God’s got this!! Maggie will see Jackson on Thanksgiving, if not before! The only thing I can say is what I said on your Instagram post – I wish Jackson was going to Fayetteville and be a Razorback!!! Oh well. This was all in God’s plan, also!! Prayers, my friend!

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  2. Finally got the chance to read this…beautifully penned. Letting Jim go was one of the hardest things I ever did and somehow we got through it. Ellen was probably easier to let go because she was so ready to go. Your heartache will ease I can assure you and you will look forward to seeing him for brief periods for the rest of your lives. You are correct; this is as it should be. Whether he realizes it or not, he is formed by those first eighteen years with you and Michelle and will lean to all that you taught him and the Lord will fill in the rest. God bless you both, the little sister he left behind and Jackson. Welcome to the college years…they will go quickly so try to enjoy them with him.

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