Something special happened during church yesterday morning. For the first time ever, we had a brief service of Backpack Blessing. Anybody of any age who was about to begin a new year of school was invited to come up front – and people had been encouraged to bring their backpacks with them to church that morning (if they had one) as part of this simple yet beautiful ceremony. There were kids as young as kindergarten up there- as well as young people headed off to college for the first time- and every age in between (and really, my wife and her friend Joleen Carlsen should have been up there as well because they’re each beginning graduate work this fall) . . . and as they gathered up front to each receive a little gift from the congregation (a small little medallion with the image of a fish on it – an ancient symbol of the Christian church) I couldn’t help but think about all of the mothers (and fathers, too, but mothers especially) who are watching these children move through life. . . delighted, bewildered, scared, relieved. . . trying to make sense of what has to be one of the toughest challenges for parents- nurturing this little someone exactly for the purpose of someday letting them go, no matter how painful and/or frightening it might be to do that.
I’m not a parent, but I think I am a bit more conscious of this particular parental hurt right now because of the time I spent Friday morning listening to WGN radio and their annual Letting Go program. During the hour, mother after mother after mother calls into the Kathy and Judy show, most of them barely able to talk because they’re crying so much- grieving because they have just dropped off one of their children to college or are about to. Sometimes it’s the oldest child- sometimes the youngest. Sometimes the kid is attending a college in a faraway locale like Florida or California, while in other cases the kid will be a half hour away. It doesn’t seem to matter. . . the crying sure sounds the same and the grief seems to be the same among these women. A few of these women seem absolutely lost in their own selfishness, and you want nothing more than to reach out and give them a good hard shake or maybe even throw them under the harsh spray of a cold shower or just scream “Get a Grip!” – anything to snap them out of their self-absorbed woe. But most of the women were completely sympathetic, calling to express a grief which was quite complex- thrilled that their child was embarking on a new and exciting chapter in their life, but terribly sad to see something precious and wonderful coming to an end. (More than one woman went on to say that she was grieving not only the loss – so to speak – of their own child, but also the loss of all of their friends who are also moving on. It really is the Emptying of the House that is such an acute part of all this.) It was especially interesting when one woman called up to say that she was about to drop off her child to first grade for the first time – and feeling much of the same thing as these mothers of new collegians were feeling – and hoping that Kathy and Judy would still be doing their Letting Go show twelve years from now when this woman’s son would be heading off to college and crying all over again!
I know that my own mom felt these emotions acutely when she and dad dropped me off at Luther, thirty years ago this month- and I only hope that I was kind and understanding about it. I actually don’t remember that moment of final parting very well at all . . . probably because there was so much going on and so much to process. But I remember with perfect clarity the day that mom and dad dropped off my little brother Nathan to school for the first time back in Atlantic. I can see him clear as day walking from the car to the door of the school, carrying a little lunchbox at his side . . . and my mom just crying and crying as though the tears would never stop. I was a high schooler at that point and fairly clueless about such things, but I think it was a moment of at least brief clarity to me where I realized that this is the flip side, the hard part, the dark half of being a parent. And all of the books in the world probably can’t adequately prepare you for it. (I think I’ve shared this story before in my blog – maybe even earlier this summer – but I’m haunted by it and need to share it again.)
It would be interesting to know how this experience of loss for mothers (and fathers too, although it somehow seems a little easier for them – or do they just cover up their grief?) is different now than it once was. It doesn’t seem to be getting any easier, even though more and more women have lives that are richly textured and meaningful quite apart from being wives and mothers. You would almost think that a woman with a satisfying job and other sources of satisfaction and meaning would not feel so bereft when a child leaves home. Maybe it’s because so many mothers – at least in our close circle – have relationships with their daughters that are incredibly close friendships. . . and I’m guessing that this was quite uncommon once upon a time. But now I think of women in our lives like Jean Veltman and Lynn Helmke who adore their daughters- and who are adored by them in return – – – and who enjoy each other’s company so thoroughly. This has to feel like your best friend is moving away . . . because in a sense, that’s exactly what this is. . . and although you know you will still be friends, you also know that it will never be the same. At least these two women can know in their heart of hearts that they have been splendid mothers – and that their daughters have grown to be wonderful young women. Laura heads off to be a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she will surely turn the place upside down, in the best sense of the word. (They’ll never know what hit ‘em.) Megan has actually just graduated from Drake University and flew to China this afternoon to begin teaching for the next six months – and perhaps longer, and where she is sure to do great things. Thrilling new chapters for both . . . and stories in which Jean and Lynn are more spectators and cheerleaders than principal, hands-on participants. But they have the sweet satisfaction of knowing that they helped to make the next step possible – and will help write whatever this next exciting chapter will be. I hope that helps them in those moments when their respective houses seem a little too quiet – a little too empty – in the days ahead.
pictured: Laura, Lynn and Walter’s daughter, exchanging hugs with some young ladies at church. You could tell from these sweet little exchanges what a powerful impact Laura has had around here and how much she will be missed.