It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye When You Send Your First Born to College


Dr. Robert B. Pankey

I wrote this in a journal some 20 years ago, and when I was starting to get rid of my stuff in the garage, I happened upon it.  Funny how once it is written, the story comes back to you every time you reread it!

For weeks before our departure from home, my wife, Jill, was sniffling around the house and sad about the prospect of our daughter leaving the nest and entering college.  I felt that Jill was overacting a bit, even though I sympathized with her, and I was a little condescending with respect to her sorrow and heartfelt pain.

Jill tried to explain to me that our family would never be the same after Wendi went off to Texas A&M at College Station, TX.  I heard what she was saying but the thought of having an empty bedroom really didn’t sink in to me.  After all, it was one less thing that we would have to worry about at midnight on Saturday night.  It was one less person that we would have to clean up after.  It is a rite of passage that many kids Wendi’s age may go through, having freedoms for the first time, like she had never had before.  No curfew, no limit to what you could eat, drink, socialize with or what to wear.  It was Wendi’s time to find her own way, learn to study and survive classes, prepare for a possible career and take the first steps toward self-responsibility.  I was happy for her.

On the day that we packed up the car and headed to Texas A&M, things began to happen so fast that I hardly had time to think about what our lives would be like from that day on.  There were suitcases and boxes to pack, a bike and a microwave oven to load and last, but not least, the stereo to break down.

I had attended Texas A&M for my Doctorate, but I wasn’t what you would call a “Good Aggie.”  I was really familiar with the Campus and University and had witnessed, first-hand, the pitfalls for incoming students who had suddenly realized their “new-found” freedoms.  Many make that first step of being accepted into college, but many also fail for various social and academic reasons.  I knew that Wendi would have to go through that transition of having complete autonomy over how to manage her life, with the realization that she had to get serious about managing her time and juggle studies with her social life. 


After the drive to College Station from our home in Corpus Christi, we arrived at Wendi’s dormitory to find hundreds of students and parents going through the same process that we were about to embark on.  Jill and I remembered our parents dropping us off at college and saying their farewells, but it never occurred to us that parents must have to go through an adjustment of their own during that time in their lives.  As we moved Wendi into her room, this strange feeling came over me.  Here I was, about to leave Wendi in this dorm room with plain walls, stale air, old beds and a window that one could barely see out of through all the dirt and scum.  How could we leave her there?  Our most precious possession in life, our treasure, our oldest who made life so full for us and her sisters!

As we sat in the dorm room with Wendi and talked about what she could do to make the room more pleasant and inviting, Wendi’s roommate arrived.  Wendi and her new-found friend began to talk about the cafeteria and the food and what they were planning to do that night, and suddenly Jill and I felt a bit like we were outsiders.  Naturally, we were not invited to take part in any of the activities Wendi and her roommate were planning.  As other girls and guys arrived to meet the new dormmates, Jill and I both looked at each other and decided it was best for us to make our exit and go to the hotel room.  We indicated that we would come by the next morning to take Wendi out for breakfast before we left.


We rented a nice hotel room, one that had a cool restaurant, thinking that we all could go to dinner and have one last evening together with Wendi, out on the town, so that she wouldn’t be so sad and start getting homesick, like the kid in Allan Sherman’s song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp).  But when Wendi turned to us and said “You about to take off?  Give me a call tomorrow morning and maybe we can eat breakfast and hit the Target Store before you all leave!”  We got the hint and drove away from Campus feeling somewhat heart broken.  

Jill and I sat together in that cool hotel restaurant, eating salad, thinking about Wendi and how great a kid she was and how proud we were to see her play sports, participate in cheerleading and receiving awards and accolades from her high school.  How fortunate we were to have a hand in raising that kid.  Suddenly, my eyes began to fill with tears, and I couldn’t finish my dinner.  Waves of emptiness washed over us as we walked back to our hotel room.  When we settled in for the night, I turned to Jill hoping that I could talk my way out of this funk that I was in.  Of course, Jill reminded me of one of my “less than sensitive” reactions to her own “empty nest” emotions the previous week, so we just watched a bit of television and drifted off.  I hate it when Jill turns things around on me when I’m in such an emotional dilemma myself!  She’s really good at that, darn it.  We didn’t sleep well, aware that our next move was not to “advise” Wendi but to let go of her when morning came.

Wendi came down from her dorm that morning and met us for breakfast and we filled a couple of shopping baskets with stuff in a last-minute shopping spree at Targets.  I wanted to tell her of all the pitfalls and horror stories that I witnessed at Texas A&M when I was a faculty member there in the 1980’s.  Each year numerous kids actually die while in college from accidents, rape, and other horrible incidents! It is a leap of faith that you take when you leave your kid at college away from the comfort of your own home.  I just didn’t feel it was the right time to fill her head with all that negativity when I saw her chatting about her new found friends, how cool it was at A&M, except for the cafeteria food, and how excited she was about her class schedule that she would soon be facing.  It was if she was saying to us “Muddah Fadduh kindly disregard this letter,” instead of wanting to go home with us.  We sensed that she wasn’t sad about Jill and I leaving her or homesick in the least! How could we have been so naïve?

As we all walked from Wendi’s dorm room, which her and her roommate had already decorated, and went to the parking lot on that hot August morning, Jill and I all hugged our first born like we never had before.  We said our final goodbyes and got situated in the car.  As we were looking out at Wendi, I rolled down the window and our conversation with her went something like, “Thanks for helping me settle in, Mom!”  We fought back the cracks in our voices and said, “We’ll miss you, Wendi,” and she approached the car window, leaned in slowly and then said, “I’ll make you and Mom proud of me.”  It was at that moment that I thought Wendi had got this gig under control. It took about 20 miles, I clocked it, for Jill to stop crying. That was a special day for sure.  

It was no surprise to us, some five years later, as we watched Wendi walk across the stage at A&M to receive her diploma.  In that time, she had weathered numerous moves to other dorms, other apartments and campus houses.  She had traveled to South America on a Study Abroad program, and had gone unscathed over boyfriends and friendships that went sour.  And most importantly, she figured out that academic thing and excelled in her classes.  She certainly lived up to her last words to us that day when we sent our first born off to college.  For all the nights spent studying for those exams, for avoiding the weekday party gangs, for all the effort it took to write those papers and for making that long walk across campus every morning to class, I applaud Wendi and I applaud all the rest of our children for living up to their word.  They all have certainly made us proud of them.  We are blessed!

Postscript:  Jill and I both came from families whose parents never graduated from college.  To this date, Jill’s mother, Francis Kemp, had three children of her own, two of which hold advanced degrees, and every one of Ms. Kemp’s nine grandchildren have graduated from college.  I’d say we are truly blessed.   


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