It was 2006, a pivotal year marked by my oldest son going off to college. He had just moved into his dorm, and he and I joined his two younger brothers at a campus lunch joint.
Each of us brought a different perspective to that moment — the parent dealing with the impending reality of the empty room at the top of the stairs; my college freshman son, embarking on the best, scariest and most important phase of his life; and my other two sons, who would take the same leap two and five years later.
There was additional emotion attached to this event, as my son was attending my alma mater, The Ohio State University. The built-in nostalgia was palpable with every step I took, every familiar building I walked past.
Then the transcendent moment occurred.
As the four of us sat having lunch, I heard a familiar song over the PA system — a mid-’70s hit by Bad Co. I don’t remember which song it was, but the band’s sound is unmistakable. I felt a wave of powerful emotions as I listened and soaked up the melding of past and present.
My reaction must have shown in my face, so an explanation was in order. I told my sons that the song they were hearing was hugely popular 30 years earlier, that I had owned Bad Co.’s vinyl albums (still have one) and that I associated those songs with my own college years on this very campus. I was a borderline warm fuzzy mess.
Sensing that my boys might dismiss my comments as nostalgic pabulum, I had to make them understand my perspective and what that moment meant to me. Imagine, I said, that 30 years from now you’re dropping your oldest child off at college, you go somewhere to eat … and a Dave Matthews song comes over the PA.
Based on their raised eyebrows and maybe a soft “Whoa” or two, I think that sunk in.
With so many parents undergoing the grief — yes, it is grief — of sending their oldest child off to college, the military or elsewhere, I hope they have the good fortune to mark that transition with a similarly powerful, yet bittersweet, experience.
A footnote or two: When I asked my boys recently if they remembered that moment from 2006, I went 0-for-3. At first I was discouraged, but I am convinced it is buried in their subconscious and will re-emerge at the appropriate moment. Dropping their oldest child off at college would be my first choice.
On that note, check out singer-songwriter John McCutcheon’s live performance of “Room at the Top of the Stair” for a beautiful take on that parental rite of passage.