Of Three Days, Two Move-Ins, and One University

Dad, Joan, and Benedict

What shall I say? I greet you at the beginning of a great career?
No. I greet you at the beginning, for we are either beginning or we are dead.
~ Wendell Berry

“Ready to go?” I asked my son Ben. He was returning to Notre Dame for his sophomore year, and it was move-in day.

“Yup,” he replied. “Let’s go.”

The van was packed with his luggage along with the stuff his buddies had stored with him over the summer. Ben had already said his goodbyes in the house – younger brothers and sisters, and a tearful mom – so no more stalling. I pulled away from the curb.

“What’s in the CD player?” he asked turning on the stereo. The cardboard thudding and euphonious bass line of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” were unmistakable. “Led Zeppelin II,” Ben commented. “Nice.”

You’ll have to believe me that I hadn’t cued up that song ahead of time, but it turned out to be particularly serendipitous for our short trip up to campus. “Leaves are falling all around,” Robert Plant sang, as if to evoke the back-to-school season. “It’s time I was on my way.” Ben and I listened in silence for a while. “Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay, but now it’s time for me to go.”

“Why are you taking Twyckenham?” Ben wondered aloud.

“The move-in staging area is by the Joyce Center,” I answered.

“Oh, right.”

It was so different from last year’s move-in which had felt more like a practice run – like an experiment to see how this whole college business worked. Then, after spring finals, Ben moved home again, and old routines were re-established: We argued about current events and popular culture, and we laughed a bunch as well – often about the same things. He worked, hung out with his friends, took side trips, and emptied the fridge – again, just like old times. The end of August materialized out of thin air, and suddenly Ben was heading back for another ND round. This time, however, the leave-taking was all so very palpable – the connections to home more tentative, the domestic ties less secure.

That feeling was especially acute since we were still recovering from Joan’s move onto Notre Dame’s campus a mere two days before. Joan is our second child, and we were ecstatic when she accepted Notre Dame’s offer of a spot in the Class of 2019. Now, I’m well aware that the expression “Double Domer” is technically reserved to those privileged to complete both an undergraduate and a graduate degree at Our Lady’s University – I get that. However, can I plead a special application of the term to our situation and those like ours? Son and daughter, sophomore and freshman, both blessed to be attending the finest Catholic university in the land at the same time? If that doesn’t qualify us as double-domerish, then maybe another, better term should be invented.

August 19, 2012; Motorist line up along Notre Dame Avenue on move in weekend. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre DameAnyway, my wife and I helped Joan moved into her dorm on Friday morning, and then we attended a presentation there on Saturday afternoon. The rector introduced herself and her staff, and then they each briefly addressed various aspects of Notre Dame dormitory life. Aside from the change in venue and voices, it was remarkably similar to the dorm presentation we attended during Ben’s orientation the year before. In fact, at one point it seemed like Joan’s rector was directly quoting a talk we had heard last year in Alumni Hall – albeit with the expected gender substitutions: “Thank you for entrusting your daughter to us,” she said, echoing Fr. George. “We’ll take good care of her.”

When she said that, suddenly our unfolding family drama became exquisitely real and personal and disorienting: Joan, Ben, Notre Dame…our first two children are in college! Our kids are growing up – we’re running out of time with them, we’re running out of opportunity! Grasp, grab, cling – hold on!

It couldn’t be helped – events proceeded apace, Joan launched in the company of her new Irish family, and I was left mulling things over.

So, back to Ben – the next day, Sunday morning. We pulled into the circle in front of Alumni Hall and started unloading. A couple of his buddies came down to help, and soon the van was empty. “That’s it, dad,” Ben said. “We got it all.”

“OK, well, I guess I’ll say my goodbye here then,” I shrugged, giving him a hug. “See you soon.”

“Yeah,” he said, “see you soon.”

As I drove home to the south side, Prairie Home Companion was on the radio, and Garrison Keillor was singing a medley duet with an opera singer. “It is well with my soul,” they sang. “It is well, it is well, with my soul.” I love that old hymn, but it was hard to sing along under the circumstances. The truth was that my soul wasn’t all that well, and I had a gnawing sensation that I’d left something undone – something important, something that still required attention. My two oldest children were off to college, and the transition felt like an ending, a conclusion – but I wasn’t done yet! Fathering is an apprenticeship that seems to take our whole lives, and our kids grow up well before we reach anything approaching proficiency.

Then, thankfully, mercifully, Garrison and company transitioned into the second hymn of their medley. “For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child,” they sang. “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” It calmed my spirit and reminded me that my fathering role was supplementary – and always had been. “[God] is the Father in a special way only of Christ, but he is the common Father of us all,” writes St. Ambrose, “because while he has begotten only Christ, he has created us.” Moreover, as sons and daughters of that creator God, we too are called to create – new beginnings, over and over and over again, every day. Ben and Joan starting at Notre Dame wasn’t merely an ending, but a host of beginnings as well – for them, for ND, even for me.

I arrived home later on Sunday and I was humming that hymn medley as I walked in the door. “Did you get him moved in alright?” Nancy asked. “Any problems?”

That gave me pause. “No problem,” I said after a moment of weighing the possibilities – the opportunities and chances of discovery, the adventure and risk, the endings and new beginnings. “No problem at all.”
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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1 Comment

  1. Nancy

     /  August 25, 2015

    When I brought Anna back to SMC Sunday, it rained most of the way in and while I was there with her. Interestingly, it was sunny and clear all the way home. Each year, it gets harder to say good-bye (as it was with Pete) and the tears are a little closer to the surface because soon, they only come back to visit….

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