It’s a bittersweet time of year–a time when 18 years of parenting walks out of the door to college and mom and dad see miles of possibilities–and an empty room. In honor of all the parents facing that situation this month, here is the first column I wrote for The Free Lance-Star, published 12 years ago when our daughter Becky left for Christopher Newport University:
Aug. 21, 2001
Our children have a river to sail-but not alone, and not adrift
SHE ROCKS gently in the slip, dipping under our weight as we move around the deck. The old sailboat tugs at her lines, tugs like a dog on her leash, ready to go. Swallows flit all around, over and under the dock, scooping up a buggy breakfast on the fly, as we stow gear, find the boat hook, and start the engine.
The put-put-put of the diesel breaks the silence. We check our instruments; we are ready to cast off. Stern lines, spring lines, bow lines-one by one we unwrap the ropes from the cleats, and loose the boat.
At home, the older daughter is busy loosening her own lines. Clothes, books, shoes, supplies disappear into bags. The products of many provisioning trips clutter her room. High-school memories are being stowed, and the dreams of childhood are being updated. She is waiting, waiting for that last line to be freed. College is just beyond the breakers, just over the horizon.
The boat moves forward. “Prepare to fend off,” my husband says. I push against a massive piling kissing the starboard rail, and the 12,000-pound boat moves under my feet.
“Clear,” I say, and she is free, slipping out into the still waters of the marina, gliding like a swan into the pink-gray dawn.
Prepare to fend off, I say silently to my daughter. Fend off bad relationships. Fend off destructive behavior. Fend off anxiety and loneliness and fear. Fend off. I will not be there for you, as I have for 18 years. It’s up to you, now. So fend off.
She is free. The sloop, still graceful in her old age, negotiates the turns in the marina, nodding to the sailboats, powerboats, fishing boats, and trawlers still in their slips. We watch for masts moving, indications of traffic ahead. One more turn, past the fuel dock, and she will be in the channel, heading for the Potomac. The smooth waters of the marina become frilled and then little wavelets begin lapping at the bow.
We are in the channel. Rock jetties line our path toward the open water, like runway lights or highway lane markers. An osprey nesting on a channel marker watches our advance from her stick-built home. Ragged Point Light appears on the port side. The rocks of the channel slip to our stern and we are out in open water, the boat nodding and bowing and cresting with each wave.
Your teen years, I think, have been lived between two jetties-family and good friends. These, along with your faith, have guided you. That beacon, the knowledge of God, always points the way to safe harbor, if we will only look. Don’t forget to look, child. Search for Him, even in the fog, especially in the storms, and maybe, most particularly, when the night is bright and clear, the stars sparkle overhead, and everything seems perfect.
The air is definitely salt. We turn into the wind, throttle down, and go forward to raise the sails. Wrapping the line three times around the winch we begin cranking. The canvas rises, flapping and complaining until it reaches the top of the mast, when it catches the morning breeze, fills, and takes its shape. The boat heels over slightly, acknowledging the tug of the sail. We go forward, hank on the front sail, and up it goes.
Under full sail now, we silence the engine and an incredible peace descends. The Potomac lifts us forward on gray-green shoulders as the wind pushes us along. A gull swoops and skims the water. I think of the great blue heron I saw once, crossing the river, swiftly gliding just barely above the water, intent on reaching the other shore. My husband told me he got more lift by staying low.
Brown pelicans, on the other hand, put on a show. They wheel and soar over the water and then, spotting a fish, they dive straight down, head first, hitting the water with a tremendous splash. The first time I saw a pelican do this I thought it had been shot. Now I know better-things are not always as they seem.
My mind goes back to our children, all so different. What we learned from parenting the first didn’t work on the second, and what worked on the second has no effect on the third. Did we discipline enough? Listen enough? Love enough? As this one leaves the nest, will she have wings to fly?
I know in my heart she will. I know she will. Despite our mistakes.
We sail all day, under the sun, over to Maryland and back, salt spray flying, the boat heeling, one eye on the instruments, the other ahead. As the sun dips to the horizon and the day cools we head home. Look for the light. Into the wind, and drop the sails. Fire up the motor. Follow the jetty.
The waters of the marina are still and flat. Swallows dart in the shadows and a gull laughs from a piling. We glide, like a swan, past sailboats and motorboats, fishing boats and trawlers. We slow to a crawl, pass the slip, and my husband puts the engine in reverse. As he backs us in I grab the lines off the pilings with the boathook. Bow lines, spring lines, stern lines. One by one we cleat them off. The boat is secure.
At home, the older daughter is counting the hours now. Her room seems bare. I think to myself, where did the time go? Soon the throbbing stereo will be silent; soon the frenetic schedule of athletics and academics and music and youth group will be a memory. Soon I will need to schedule visits with her.
Three hours away from her hug, three hours from her laugh, three hours from her tears. So much of life is loving and letting go.
Someone once said, a ship in a harbor is safe, but then, that’s not what ships were made for.
Sail on, daughter. With love.
LINDA J. WHITE is a member of The Free Lance-Star editorial staff