Age brings rolling avalanches of sentimentality. As the days in the rear view begin outnumbering those in the windshield, one starts feeling the draw of former things. For me this is most acute for anything to do with college. While some didn’t enjoy their college experience, though I don’t know a single one, for me it remains perhaps the most memorable four years of my life. Even when I consider this blessing that is the now, with my magnificent bride and wonderful children, the tug of then is never far away.
Earlier this week our oldest, the Queen’s son, stepped into that next chapter of his life. It’s a picturesque campus a bit over 2 hours away with perfectly manicured grounds and oaks standing sentinel over those seeking truth, and mind blowing parties. I was the first in my family to attend college. Among other things that meant there was no one to point the way. I was left to figure out college, and its complexities, for myself, often the hard way.
If part of a parent’s job is to keep our children from making our past mistakes, I couldn’t, in good conscience, allow him to turn that page without an inkling of that the chapter might include. So as the Queen, with tear filled eyes, said her last good byes, I shook his hand and casually slid this into his other.
“Today is the first day of the best of your life, and I’m a little jealous of you for it. My four years of college were, and will always be, some of my brightest moments. Every so often I imagine I’m back there, and some memories remain so vivid it feels I can still reach out and grab them.
At the bottom of a dresser drawer in my bedroom are some tattered clothes; mostly old party t-shirts and fraternity jackets, a bunch of moth eaten junk to most people. Things I haven’t worn in decades, but I just can’t throw any of it away. Doing so would feel like selling off a part of my soul, for what they represent.
As you may know, I was the first in my family to attend college. Leaving my parents’ home that August morning freshman year was a journey into the wild unknown. No one could tell me what I might find when I got there, no words of wisdom were offered as I walked out the door. Through no fault of their own, I was left to figure it out the best I could, learning to navigate the waters of a new life away from the mom and dad who had always been there.
But in truth, I wasn’t thinking of that as I pulled out of the driveway that fall day, all that was on my mind was, “I’m finally free!”
I’ve seen it for some time. Your eagerness to go, to get away from mom’s endless questions and dad’s senseless demands. Freedom and independence are waiting for you on a college campus in a small town- so close you can almost taste it. I’ve heard the aching in your voice and seen the longing in your eyes. Here is what you are trying leave behind; there is what you want to run towards. It’s like a suit that doesn’t fit right anymore; it’s uncomfortable, tight, and all you want is to get if off. Those feelings are natural, I should know. It’s the same for most every boy – the burning need to break away. It will be the same for your own son.
I guess you’re wondering now what this letter is all about. Consider it a gift – something I was never given when I stood on the same threshold you stand this day. Please don’t think this advice from someone who knows best because he did everything right. That would be as unfair to you as it is untrue of me. Besides, maybe the greatest part of college is what happens outside a classroom, learning those life lessons for yourself. I wouldn’t take that from you; it’s what’s meant by growing up. That’s what it means to become a man.
Instead, let these words serve as a roadmap of sorts; from someone who has climbed the same mountain you’re standing at and merely wants to suggest easier paths.
But as I think more about it, perhaps all of this isn’t about you as much as it is about me – maybe this is my attempt to finally be rid of old demons.
By most standards, I was an above average college kid. I had good grades, great friends, and did better than most with the opposite sex (one day I’ll explain to you the ‘blue light’). I stayed out of trouble and for the most part achieved what I went there for. If I ever arrive at a point of questioning the existence of God, I’ll just remember that I made it through college without getting arrested or a girl pregnant.
I won’t insult you with warnings of drinking and driving, blowing off class, or doing drugs. You were raised right and ought to know these things already. What I’m giving you here is far richer and perhaps more important, because the consequences, while not quite as apparent, might be harder to endure.
What you’ll read below comes simply from my own experiences and the two decades I’ve had to reflect on them. It’s what I might do different if we could trade places and I got to try over again, because it’s only now that I have the benefit of seeing where those decisions led.
All I ask is for you to let them marinate in your heart and mind, nothing more. So when the time comes – and it will come – you might remember what’s written here and perhaps choose differently than I once did.
I wish I had been more grateful to my parents for their sacrifices. I wish I had shown them just how much I appreciated what they did. I should have never assumed that just because I was their son they already knew. I took far too much advantage of them but I know now I could never be where I am without their love and support.
I wish I had shown more humility. I wish I had asked more questions instead of giving only answers. I should have connected with older men, people I admired to guide and hold me accountable, instead of thinking I could do it on my own. Many of my greatest regrets are because I wouldn’t allow another to point in me a different way.
I wish I had taken a few more risks. I always wanted to backpack across Europe, but because of mainly fear, and to a lesser degree money, I never did. It will forever be one of my biggest letdowns.
I wish I had never tried to change who I was. College led me to think I was too good for my family and my upbringing. Because of that I distanced myself from the real me, and the people who loved me most. It’s taken nearly a decade to rebuild those scorched bridges – and sadly, some can never be so again.
I wish I had been a better brother. For most of my life, and especially my college life and beyond, I treated my sister like total shit. I couldn’t see her for anything other than the little, sometimes annoying, sister she briefly was. I was blind to how much she looked up to me and how much my approval meant to her. Thankfully she has shown me more grace since than I ever showed to her then.
I wish I hadn’t tried just to ‘get by’. I wish I had been more interested in learning versus getting a grade. I wish I had read more and better books. It’s easy to think what might have been had I taken some of it more seriously than I did.
I wish I hadn’t drifted so far from my faith. The day I walked onto that campus was the day I walked away from my God. It’s by His mercy that He waited for me to return to Him, but only after I had wrecked much of my life living as if He didn’t matter.
As you begin to write this next chapter of your life, know I’m proud of the person you are and the man you are becoming, and I look forward to watching as you begin filling in the pages. But most important of all I eagerly await the finished manuscript, one that I will be honored to say is more than a stepson – he is a friend.