When my second son was born, the nurse did not proclaim “It’s a boy!” as one would expect. Instead her words were “Looks like you got a redhead.” Indeed, he was pink from tip to tail with a shock of red hair that stood up like a sail, or, in my imagination, like Woody Woodpecker’s crest. It didn’t lay flat for two weeks. I remember taking him for haircuts when he was two, and how the barber would comment on his hair, saying how if you cut it too short it would stick straight up again, and then interrupting his comments with “sorry, buddy,” having realized that he had just cut it too short, after all. I remember him having exactly as long as it took this stubborn child to slurp a lollypop to cut his hair. Usually barbers save the lollypop for the end, but with this child, we knew to give it to him immediately. It stopped the complaining about the haircut, and worked like a game controller to encourage the child to look up or down, left or right, with just a tug of the stick.
As they grew, I started giving all my boys home-haircuts. It saved time and money. Now, in the pandemic, home-haircuts (and I’ve gotten quite good at them) are the only way to go. Yesterday, I cut my stubborn, smart, non-compliant, witty, redheaded second son’s hair one final time before he begins college.
I lingered over this haircut a little longer than necessary, I’ll admit. No longer am I limited by a small child’s attention span, and it felt nostalgic to run my fingers through that copper hair one more time. It felt good to take care of him, even though he’s grown.
Today, there was no usual move-in-day chaos on campus. His older brother attended the same school, and I recall fondly the tradition of mobbing freshman cars, hauling everything to their dorm rooms, and leaving it there for students and parents to engage in a life-sized game of Tetris to get all the furniture and belongings into the tiny rooms. Today, we were given a wheeled bin, a friendly wave and welcome, and told to keep it moving. He pushed his things to the third floor while I parked the car. Beginning now, he’ll be sequestered on campus for fourteen weeks straight. Unlike his older brother’s college experience, there will be no long weekends home, no drop-by visits when I’m in town for a conference, and no excursions off campus that might land him on my doorstep just because.
There were some small comforts. His post office box is the same number as my childhood mailbox. He’s in the same dorm as his brother was. His roommate seems like a nice guy. He starts the day on Monday morning with a physics class, which I’m sure he’ll love. He’s already texted me something funny he found on campus.
Nonetheless, watching him walk away, back to his dorm, was far more like watching him walk into the unknown than it was when I watched his brother walk off five years ago. He’s a confident young man, perhaps even too confident, but I no longer know what the next four months will bring our world. As with his brother, I no longer have the ability to kiss him and make it all better. Unlike with his brother, I don’t have the confidence that things will generally be okay on their own.
This year, as parents watch our grown children walk away from us, back to dorms and apartments, schools and jobs, it is not confidence in our children that we lack. We lack confidence in our world. By the time I see my son again, who knows what will have happened? One or more of us may have been exposed to a potentially deadly disease. Our community may suffer more unemployment. There will be a dramatic and destructive election between now and then, no matter how the vote (the first time voting for my son and his peers) turns out, and that comes with its own anxieties and unknowns. When he comes home for the end of the term at Thanksgiving, there could be shortages of our favorite traditional foods. We won’t be able to travel abroad like we did last year, and we shouldn’t even drive across state lines to visit my mother before quarantining our college student for two weeks. In short, the only certainty I have is uncertainty.
Globally and historically speaking, what is shocking in this is how certain we have been when our children walk away that we will have the next holiday, the next Sunday dinner, or the next family visit. In previous generations, children emigrated to foreign lands without ease of return. They went off to war with little warning that trouble had been brewing. They faced pandemics and deadly diseases without vaccines as a matter of course. What would shock our ancestors is how very comfortable we’ve become.
Like everyone around me, I am eager for a vaccine to usher me back into my comfort zone. Until then, I am learning, just like everyone else, to do my very best to protect my children, but also to commend each one back to the God who made him. I am learning to take God at his word that he does indeed know the plans he has for us, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV) I am learning to accept those plans on God’s terms, not my own.
Of course, I am not learning these things because I am particularly pious. I am learning them, as every other Christian has done, because I have no choice. This son was never mine to protect, nor have I ever been truly capable. Admittedly, while all my sons were living under my roof, I took comfort that they were somehow safe here, that some things were in my control. Now, another one of my sons has left my nest, and I cannot hide him under the shadow of my wings. I can only trust that my son “will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1).
So I watched him go, if only for the next fourteen weeks. By then, of course, he’ll need another haircut.