That’s the road sign that appeared as my wife and I drove around the Massachusetts town where we had just moved our oldest child into her college dormitory.
I had never seen such a sign, but my first thought was how “thickly settled” my heavy heart had been all weekend. I knew drop-off would be bittersweet, but the crowded mix of contradictory emotions that had taken up residence in me kept shifting through pride, sadness, joy and fear.
Upon second thought, I realized the opposite: my heart was “thickly unsettled.” But I found the metaphor of a family as a settlement oddly comforting. A healthy family is established through years of settling into rituals and habits of love. So it’s natural that when one member leaves such a colony of caring, all aspects are disrupted. The resulting grief, however, reconfirms the settlement’s value.
My third thought after seeing the sign should have been my first: What does “thickly settled” mean legally? I learned later it’s a remnant of New England’s past that means “this is a densely populated area with houses built close together so the unposted speed limit is 30 miles per hour.” Luckily, my reverie with metaphors did not lead to a speeding ticket, which would have been further unsettling.
The toughest part of the drop-off process actually occurred the night before we left home. As I tried to fall asleep, the enormity of the changes about to happen hit me. It’s possible I used some “I’m not crying, you’re crying” humor with my wife to endure it. But I vowed not to reveal too much sadness in front of my daughter. It’s always important to try to be strong for the person experiencing the most transition.
Surprisingly, the move-in was not very emotional, thanks to a variety of healthy distractions. First, a well-organized team of upper-class students helped us carry our items to the dorm room. Second, one of my daughter’s roommates came with a sister who was already in college, which had a calming influence on all of us. Third, the students’ orientation schedule for the weekend was so packed with events that we barely spent much time with our daughter! I suppose the order and structure are meant to combat how most students and parents feel during the changes at hand.
In fact, the actual “goodbye moment” was rather anticlimactic. Due to a scheduling glitch, we had to yank my daughter out of an orientation activity to hug her and then let her go as a construction worker in the quad looked on respectfully. (He cautioned my wife and me to avoid stepping into an open sewer hole as we sniffled away.)
Every new settlement begins with a pioneer
Since the college drop-off experience, a final metaphor related to settling land has helped me put things in perspective: the pioneer. (I apologize for being “thick” with metaphors, but they help me process times when I feel overstimulated as a parent.)
A college freshman is a pioneer whose turn it is to explore new land, meet other seekers, and blaze new trails through the “thinly settled” frontier of her future. My job is to keep the original home fire burning.
After the long drive back to our house, I forced myself to complete a dreaded task: viewing my daughter’s bedroom. It was quiet, semi-empty, and the tidiest it has ever been. Take a moment to cherish your children, but also gaze at their rooms. Believe it or not, you will miss even their messes someday. I try to keep that in mind when I see my 15-year-old daughter’s clothes bursting from their wide-open dresser drawers yet again. That sight used to anger me. Instead, I see those drawers now as colorful flower boxes overflowing with splendor on a dresser-turned-tiny-house. At least until our family routines — and our hearts — settle once again.