Unloading in front of the Gothic-style dorm, the welcoming upperclassmen do crazy, exuberant dances and grab boxes to help. These are the RAs of the dorm, the first bit of much new collegiate vocabulary I will learn along with my son.
He and I leave Sheryl to do her masterwork in his corner, hardwood-floored room. She will handle the important groundwork of his comfort for the next year. I will handle other issues: finding the best pizza, finding a gym where he can continue jujitsu, the purchase of a bicycle and where to stash it. Sheryl’s immaculate and detailed renovation is an OCD and maternal-love-fueled epic poem of logistics and labor, so Matthew and I have plenty of time to explore and just spend time together.
I’m surprised at how little we say to each other, and how good that feels. There is nothing we are withholding and I know that our “being current” with each other, as the shrinks would say, is a result of years spent in each other’s company. Not just dinner or good-nights or drop-offs; it’s time coaching his teams, being in the stands, on fishing boats, in the water surfing or diving, watching stupid television, being home on nights when he is with his friends and talking smack with them, standing up to and getting in the face of teachers, parents, other kids or anyone who so much as thought about treating him badly.
We put in the time together; we built this thing we have of comfort and love. And now, as we both prepare to let go of each other, it is paying off. That evening, even though his dorm room is ready he says, “Dad, I think I’ll just stay with you and Mom tonight.” I catch Sheryl’s eye; this time, it’s hers that are moist.
The next morning, after all of the freshmen file out of the massive and imposing chapel after convocation, Matthew shows his first signs of uncertainty. The president’s speech was an ode to the incoming achievers, “the most highly accomplished” class ever accepted in “the most competitive year” in the school’s history. It took this elegant ceremony, in a setting both beautiful and intimidating, among a sea of strangers, some of the best kids our country has to offer, for Matthew to realize the stakes. He did it. This is real. He is here. This is happening.
“Dad, what if it’s too hard for me here?” he asks me later, sitting on his fold-out bed back at the hotel, looking more “fresh” than “man.”
“You came from a very tough academic school with great grades. You took the tests, you got the scores, you did the hours and you did the travel and extracurriculars. You made it happen. No one else. This won’t be any different. This school chose you because they know you can succeed here.”
“None of the other kids look scared at all,” he says, and for the first time I can remember since he was a baby, I can see his eyes welling up. I want to reach out and hug him, but I don’t. Instead I look him in the eye.
“Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”
He nods and turns away.
“I think I might take a nap.”
“Sure, I’ll wake you in a while,” I say.
He curls up in a ball, like he used to. I unfold a blanket and cover him, tucking it underneath, rolling him in it, like a burrito.
* * *
The students who populate the university are impressive. These are the ones who didn’t dumb it down to be cool, the ones who were unabashed about learning and loved doing it. Anyone feeling anxious about the future of our country should spend a couple of days on our college campuses. These kids are studs.
Matthew meets friends quickly, a great group of freshmen from all over the country.
“Dad, they all can’t believe I left Southern California. They all want to go there.”
“This is exactly how you will get to live in Southern California if you want to. You will earn it here,” I tell him at a good-bye dinner Sheryl and I have put together for him and his new pals. He nods in his solemn way.
After dinner the gang plans on going to one of the local nightspots. “Dad, you gotta come!” He insists, and I know, like me, he is playing to delay the end of the evening. I leave before sunrise in the morning. Sheryl will stay later (I have to be back at Parks and Recreation by noon to shoot a full day) and she urges me to go. “Do it. He wants to be with you. I’ll drop you off.”
But at the hot spot it is wall-to-wall kids, easily a couple hundred of them, raucous and spilling out into the street. I know I can’t wade into a group like that unnoticed. Matthew knows it too.
“Honey, I can’t go in there,” I say as everyone piles out of our rental car.
“I know, Dad.”
We lock eyes for the tiniest beat. I want to see what, if anything, he will say. His new “bros” are already striding to the club and he doesn’t want to be left behind. This is the college good-bye I’ve heard so much about and dreaded so deeply.
I close in to hug him, but he puts just one arm around me, a half hug. “Peace,” he says, a phrase I’d never heard him use until he said the same thing to his little brother in the driveway. Then he turns on his heel and strides away. From his body language I know he won’t turn to look back; I know why and I’m glad. I watch him until I can’t see him anymore, until he’s swallowed up by his new friends and his new life.
Adapted from Love Life by Rob Lowe. Copyright © 2014 by Rob Lowe. Printed by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.