When I awoke early that splendid Friday morning in the beautiful bedroom community of Oak Park, Illinois, I was only momentarily surprised to find the other side of the bed vacant. Even in my half-conscious state, I knew where Stacey was: cuddled in the downstairs guest bedroom with Glenny. This was the final morning of our daughter’s childhood. She was perched on the edge of the nest, poised to take the leap, eager to try out her own wings. Let freedom ring, I sang to myself. It’s Independence Day.
Packed to the rafters with the essentials, decoratives, and knickknacks we’d soon be moving into Glenny’s new home (a 15th-floor apartment on State Street, in the South Loop of Chicago) the Toyota Highlander sat in Rob and Cindy’s driveway, still catching its breath. Yesterday’s haul from Nashville had been relatively uneventful, but long, punctuated by two sit-down meals: lunch, reasonably priced, edible, and clouded by the long-forgotten stench of second-hand cigarette smoke; and dinner, considerably pricier and simply awful. Driving through the city had been a frightening and treacherous change from the molasses pace of Tennessee. As we passed brightly lit-up U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox were battling for a wild-card play-off spot, an 18-wheeler came inches from ripping off one of our side-view mirrors. Its trailer bouncing over the uneven, crumbling pavement, the speeding behemoth proceeded up the road ahead, haphazardly bullying its way between the tight lanes of smaller vehicles. Stacey had misplaced the TripTik at least three times at critical junctures. Still, even with those several panicked scrambles for the errant road map, we found our way to the placid lanes of Chitown’s oldest suburb and the dogs of Linden Boulevard alerted the night to the scent of strangers from the South.
Over some well-appreciated and merciful libations, Stace and I had much to share with our hosts. With two sons in college, Rob and Cindy are more than familiar with the often-conflicting emotions that come with setting kids free to pursue their higher educations. The word “free” is an ironic one. While the 18-year-old justifiably feels a sense of liberation in his or her new adventure, the parents are left with aching hearts, an empty bedroom, and an enormous bill that might take decades to pay off. Free? My ass! After a couple of pale ales, Rob and I trundled down to his man-cave/basement rehearsal studio to plug in a couple of electric guitars and recall the “Summer of Love.” For me, our jam session was just what the doctor ordered. I never get to pick and grin just for the sake of playing music. Music, in fact, is my job. A great job to be sure; but the pure thrill that came with learning my first, rudimentary chords has long since been smothered by the constant effort to create commerce. Our spontaneous duo hit some very cool grooves and imaginative riffs, while Rob improvised on some meandering, atonal, lyrical concepts. That our ad-libbed compositions were momentary and disposable made them all the more fulfilling. Much more relaxed and completely tuckered out, I rolled in bed next to Stace, only to wake up with the dawn, to the aforementioned vacancy in our bed.
Amazing, yet absolutely true: When people of a certain intelligence get together, draw up a sound plan, communicate clearly, coordinate and pool their efforts toward getting a job done, by cracky, even a seemingly insurmountable task can be accomplished efficiently, skillfully, and without undue pain. Buildings and bridges can be constructed; titanic feature films can get made; astronauts can be sent to the moon; and fresh-faced collegians can be installed in their living quarters. There was no waiting, no confusion, not a single parking ticket. Following a strategically placed sign, we veered off State Street into the alley behind The University Center and took our place at the back of the line of parents’ cars. Glenny and I quickly unloaded the Highlander, and Stace sped off in the now-relieved vehicle to locate a nearby parking lot. Then, with the aid of a squadron of yellow-T-shirted helper bees, we carefully packed Glenny’s stuff into two huge, cardboard boxes on wheels and scooted our precious cargo into the building, guided by a chipper, knowledgeable, acne-cheeked, female Resident Advisor, who used this time strategically to fill us in on some critical details. Less than a minute later, we were ascending to the 15th floor in a padded elevator. Our RA-guide slid a master key card and swung open the door. We stepped inside what, for the next nine months, would be our daughter’s very first place of her own, a four-bedroom suite, with two baths, and a full kitchen. Greeting us through the living room windows was a breathtaking view: sailboats gliding across the blue waters of Lake Michigan and a chrome, serpentine “L” train chugging over the tracks below. So this is what we’re paying twelve-hundred bucks a month for, I said to myself. I get it now.
While the actual move-in went without a single unharmonious note, the rest of the day brought some dissonance that yanked at the fragile seams of our changing, family dynamic. After all, we were now 30 hours away from completely letting go of the normal to which we had been accustomed for 18½ years. All three of us were hyper-aware of that discomfiting reality. So, in spite of the “OMG” awe of this beautiful city, this fabulous apartment, and the adventures that lay ahead, there was a push/pull between parents and offspring that tended to bring out each person’s most passive/aggressive tendencies. Not only had Glenny lucked out big-time with her new digs — How many kids score this level of luxury with their very first place? — she also had been matched with a pair of seemingly perfect roomies, girls with whom she was eager to start bonding. So, when one or more of her roommates was temporarily parentless, Glenny felt no compunction from excusing Stace and me to our own devices. However, when her flat mates were with their folks, a pal, or a boyfriend, thus leaving Glenny on her own, we were summoned by frantic calls and texts: “Where are you? Don’t you love me anymore?”
“Well, Sweetie, we’re at Target buying all the stuff you asked us to get you for your room.” Follow-up communiqués every 10 minutes demanded an update as to when we’d be back to assuage her loneliness. Meanwhile, another $200 poorer, we were sweating and schlepping four heavy bags the eight, long, city blocks back from Target to The University Center. At the end of this bittersweet day, Glenny escorted us down to ground level for our first “so-long.” Hugs. “I love yous.” As Stace and I stepped out onto the bustling city sidewalk, my heart did a knee-jerk skip of a beat. What I started to say was, “Where’s Glenny?” In the 20 feet between the security station and the revolving door that spun us out onto State Street, I had forgotten that our kid wouldn’t be coming along. She would, as a matter of fact, be spending her first night in her first apartment. This can’t be real. Wasn’t I just pushing her on the swing?
The most amusing and baffling interchange took place at lunch the following day, or as I call it, “The Day of the Big Goodbye.” Glenny had actually requested to hang with Mommy and Daddy for the afternoon. (I wondered if this had been a spontaneous and genuine desire on her part, or something she’d been advised to do during her various stages of orientation. Regardless, we appreciated it and took full advantage.) Over fast-food stir-fry, Glenny offered a play-by-play of the previous evening’s events, reporting that she and her two new roomies had sat up on their first night together, drinking Sleepytime Tea and discussing house rules. Unanimously, she said, they had agreed that each individual should take responsibility for busing, washing, and stowing away her own cups, silverware, and dishes. “It’s really not that hard,” our housekeeping-challenged daughter announced, her voice taking on a deeper, more-world-weary tone, as if this revelation might never have occurred to her brick-dumb folks. “You just put some soap in the handle of the spongy thing, run some water, wash and rinse your plate, and put it in the whatcha-m’callit, the drainer.” Stacey just smiled and shook her head. For years, we’d been urging the kid to do this very thing at home. However, whatever might be happening with those zaftig bimbos, the Khardashian sisters, at any given time always seemed to distract Glenny from being a better, more considerate roommate to her parents.
Curiously, the final bit of tenseness did not take place between mother and daughter, but between Yours Truly and my flying-the-coupe kid. The college had organized a packed schedule of ice-breaking activities for the new students to get to know one another and get familiar with the ins-and-outs of campus life. (Btw, the Columbia College “campus” is not your traditional, pastoral, Midwestern site, but basically seven buildings in Chicago’s infamous downtown Loop.) Headlining this particular Saturday night was a movie screening (the hilarious Get Him To The Greek, starring Russell Brand). The girls of 1526, Glendyn, Taylor, and Hayley, had made plans to attend together. At around five-o’clock, as Mom, Dad, and Daughter were attempting to enjoy an early nosh at a lovely sidewalk café across Michigan Avenue from the Art Institute, Glenny started to express some anxiety, feeling an urgent need to get back to her dorm and gussy up for movie night. The event didn’t start for another two and a half hours, but the pushing away had already begun. Stace and I had plans to meet some friends for a drink — but, not until eight. We had absolutely nothing on our agenda until then. An earlier trip to Staples and the day on the town had already cost me nearly 300 bucks. I was not in any hurry to bid my daughter farewell. My feet were in excruciating pain after tromping around gorgeous Millennium Park, ogling the massive sculptures, fountains, and the Michael Graves-designed amphitheater. Glenny, however, expressed no sympathy whatsoever for her soon-to-be-dispossessed parents. So what that she was leaving us with several hours to kill, and no place to kill them? She clearly wanted us gone, gone, gone. Our daughter had decided she was ready to commence her solo flight (flanked, of course, by her new birds-of-a-feather cohorts). I couldn’t believe my sweet child could be this selfish. Let’s just say, she and I exchanged a few terse words, before Stace and I assented to her wishes.
Surprisingly enough, the final hugs in the University Center lobby did not produce buckets of tears. Our embraces were long, strong, and heartfelt, but without excess drama. My wife’s only child, and my youngest, was now a college student, living in a major city, hundreds of miles from home. Mom and Dad were left with the specter of driving South the next morning in a much lighter Highlander to a much quieter house. Life goes on. Surely, there will be more tears and consternation, more laughter, more heartache, and more joy over the coming months and years. There will be substantial bills to pay. Many more “I love yous” and “I miss yous” will be spoken, texted, and emailed. Invariably, some more terse words will be spoken. Although we worry and wonder how she’ll negotiate these new waters, we are proud of our already-maturing daughter. Our baby is on her own. And, for the first time in nearly nineteen years, so are we.