We need life-cycle ritual for when kids leave home

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When I was a smart young rabbi and knew quite a lot, I created worship services for little children, adapted baby-naming ceremonies and lectured to new mommies and daddies about how to raise their children Jewishly.

Now I'm a not-as-smart middle-aged rabbi who wishes that somewhere, a more enthusiastic middle-aged colleague would create a life-cycle ceremony that addresses events I find myself going through: kids leaving home.

Sometimes it feels as if Judaism and probably most other organized religions guide and nurture us through the many stages of parenting — from birth rituals and the beginnings of religious education through the agony of our children's adolescence. But we're suddenly on our own at the moment when our children take the step that, in most cases, changes their status in our homes from resident to visitor.

For parents, the parting evokes reactions whose universality crosses religious and cultural borderlines.

When I went off to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania in the fall of 1962, my parents drove me to the campus, six hours from home. We unloaded my stuff, made the uncomfortable introductions with my roommates and the fearsome dorm counselor, and then my parents gracefully took their leave.

About 30 years later my mother confessed that after exiting the campus, they pulled the car over to the side of the street, turned off the engine and cried.

On a recent whitewater rafting trip in Idaho, I met a fellow from Oregon named Patrick Michael Sean O'Halloran. He told me that when he entered a California college in 1961 his Irish Catholic parents drove him to the campus. They unloaded the car quickly, and he was pleased that they departed soon after. A few miles into the trip home, Pat only recently learned, his parents pulled into a highway rest area, turned off the engine, and — like mine — they cried.

There must be a better way to launch children into their independence.

Leave-taking comes upon us abruptly, sometimes with little or no forethought or preparation, and certainly without ritual that would help us endure. It may happen in this way because while our children are focused on what lies ahead, we parents are equally invested in trying not to think about what this loss — and "loss" is the key word — will mean to us, to our home, to our relationships. And so we all conspire to avoid thinking about what is soon to happen.

I remember how our son left home.

Zack's departure was particularly complex. Our family was in a state of very happy transition, about to realize the long-held "impossible" dream of leaving our Philadelphia suburb and moving to Vermont. It was the end of June, and my wife, Sherri, had already gone north to start her new job. Our daughter, Jessie, had begun her final year at summer camp. Zack and I remained at the house. At the end of August, he would attend college in North Carolina.

At the time, Zack was driving a 1984 Volvo sedan. I had bought the Volvo new, thinking it was the kind of car that Sherri and I could use and then later, perhaps, pass on to the kids. At 124,000 miles it came into Zack's possession, and on that June day it was packed to the brim with all that was important to its owner.

"Gotta split, Dad. Josh is waiting at his house and we're going to drive down to the shore together. Bye."

"`Bye." Is that how childhood ends? Just like that?

As I headed out to the driveway after him, I started to think of a stroll I'd taken 18 years earlier down a hospital corridor that connected the delivery room with the nursery. Beside me, a nurse guided a bassinet that contained a brand-new person. And the novel thought kept racing through my mind: "I'm taking a walk with my son. With my son!"

The screen door slammed behind me, a shock to my system that reminded me, thankfully, to stop being so damn lugubrious. After all, Zack was about to grab his independence. We had raised him in that direction.

But still…But still…

I walked over to the car. Looked it over, inspected the tires and rearranged a piece of clothing that had gotten stuck in the door.

"Really, Dad. I've gotta go. Josh is waiting."

We gave each other a hug and a kiss. One of us had tears in his eyes and even down his cheeks, while the other gently broke away, started the car and backed down the driveway.

Zack paused in the road to shift gears. Then he slowly drove down to the foot of our hill toward the intersection where he would turn right and disappear from sight. I stood alone, watching as he edged away. A blurry maroon object growing smaller and smaller. A car, and my son, leaving his childhood home. Leaving his childhood. Forever.

And then my vision cleared slightly. I noticed that the old car's tailpipe was loose, sort of hanging by one clip. The forward thrust of the car made it flutter up and down, so gently, almost in slow motion.

Four years later it was Jessie's turn. By now the old Volvo had been handed to the youngest Alper, and with 187,000 miles on the odometer it was about to head toward another college.

They say history repeats itself. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there's nothing new under the sun.

A caravan comprising two cars, two parents, one first-year student and one dog named Gideon drove the 2-1/2 hours south to Jessie's new college. A sensitively prepared schedule had us arriving around noon, helping our child settle in and then joining the president, faculty and freshman class for a late-afternoon reception.

Then we were equally sensitively urged to LEAVE. Which we did.

By 6:30, we found ourselves on the Taconic parkway heading north. Two parents and a dog. No radio. No conversation.

But later that night, after the answering machine was tended and the mail sorted, after the car was cleaned out and the throw rug Jessie decided she really didn't need was wrapped and placed in the cellar, I walked into her room and sat alone on the bench next to her picnic-table desk. The room had a sudden neatness about it that I knew I'd hate. I looked around at the hat collection, the posters on the walls, the rejected CDs and the cluttered high school notebooks askew on the closet shelf.

I though about the events of the day, thought how happy I was for her, and how proud. And also how sad, how selfishly sad I felt at her departure.

Sherri called out, looking for me. Then she came up to Jessie's room where she quietly joined me on the bench. We sat in silence for awhile, just looking around.