By Steve Rice
My daughter is moving into college this month. Emotionally, I’m okay (so far), but my mind is really confused. I don’t know how so many years have gone by so quickly. I can remember the taste of the lemon-pepper fries the night before she was born. I remember the silliness of purposely driving over the speed bumps in the restaurant parking lot in hopes to get the labor ball rolling. I seem to remember everything about the day of her birth as if it were last Tuesday. But it wasn’t. Parents like to say that days with children are often long, but the years are short. Time, for whatever reason, feels like a funnel; slow moving in the beginning, but spiraling down with increasing momentum as we sling around the sun.
I’m making this all about me, of course. Any anxiety I have about her leaving home for college has nothing to do with her promising future and the hard work she has put in to have this opportunity. I keep telling myself that this is why we have children in the first place, to send them off. I believe that. We love them, care for them, provide for all of their needs, for the very purpose of turning their faces toward the promise of building their own lives and discovering who they are called to be. But when we cross the threshold from taking care of our children to telling them to take care, we wrestle more with the passing of time in our funnel, and not theirs. I wonder if our anxiety is not so much that they are moving on, but that we are closer to checking out.
I’ve recently had conversations with two parishioners in their 80s. Even though the individuals were not related, their anxieties were. They wanted to be relevant in the years they had remaining and they were frustrated at their inability to do the things that once came with ease. They saw far more sands at the bottom of the hourglass than at the top. We’ve done an awful thing in giving the impression that usefulness and Christian vocation are a young person’s domain. In the parish, I’ve found that most of the conflict on inevitable change is found not so much in the substance of the change, but it in the difficulty (or inability) for some to see their role and Christian vocation on the other side.
When our Lord restored St. Peter in that moving exchange in John 21, he told Peter that when he was young he “walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” The Evangelist tells us Jesus was indicating with what kind of death Peter would glorify God. Those passing sands through the hourglass also remind us that as we age, our independence turns to dependence. St. John Chrysostom, however, also says that “In things of this life the young man is useful, the old useless; but in Mine, He says, not so; but when old age has come on, then is excellence brighter, then is manliness more illustrious, being nothing hindered by the time of life.” It is the lie of the world that only the young are useful. In Jesus Christ, every age of life, every phase, is an opportunity to grow closer to him and to encourage others too.
Theophan the Recluse once gave advice to parents in his work The Path to Salvation. “The spirit of the infant,” he wrote, “has, as it were, no movement as yet in the first days, months, and even years. It is impossible to communicate anything for him to assimilate by the usual means of communication, but one may influence him in another way.” That “another way” was the communication between souls through the heart — by our feelings for one another. My children’s pediatrician put it another way. When my daughter was 4, we welcomed our second child. At one of our first appointments with the pediatrician, I commented that this child was so much calmer than our first. I’ll never forget, he removed the stethoscope from his ears and said, “That’s because you’re calmer than you were with your first.” I’ve tried to never forget this lesson.
I write these words on the last weekend she is a child under my roof. The next weekend she will move into her college dorm and take the first independent step toward her own calling. She will discern what she is to do with the next phase of her life. Perhaps she will fall in love. She will fail, fall, and her heart will break. I can no longer protect her in the way I once did. I can’t even see her grades unless she gives permission! She will always have a bed and will always have a home, but it will be different.
I pray I have been faithful in my calling as her father. I know I can’t now cram in things I forgot to say or things I should have said better. I can’t do that anymore than one can brush away months of neglect the night before a dentist appointment. I hope the language of the heart and soul has been heard. As she faces the world with independence, responsibility, and opportunity, she will need those instructive feelings and witness as much as ever. She might even be open to words.
My vocation as her father has not ended, but my role as changed. Once upon a time, I taught her how to drive to the basket for a layup and make the sign of the cross, both of which were accomplished more by modeling than monologue. As she navigates her own new world, she will be looking to see how my wife and I are navigating ours. Now, I need to show her that the experience of life actually deepens with age. I need to show her that the bond and happiness found in marriage gets stronger. I need to show her that whatever happens during the day, the next day will still come, and with the rhythm and constancy of daily prayer, it will come in the same way. I need to teach her not to fear change, but to embrace it.
The sands will continue to pass through, but Jesus Christ holds, and upends, the glass. As our children grow up, we pray they will discover more deeply who they are in Jesus Christ and what he has called them do. As those children grow up, we as their parents are called to do the same.