The empty nest | College move-in day: At a loss for words, Dad says goodbye

Larry Rosen is a San Francisco writer, editor, host of the podcast “(Is it) Good for the Jews” and, suddenly, an empty nester. Reach him at [email protected].


It’s 4 a.m. in a hotel room 10 floors above the Springsteen-esque grandeur of Easton, Pennsylvania, and we’re all awake. College move-in starts in three hours. The beginning of the beginning, or the end, depending on your perspective.



“Are you awake?” Awake? I’m just lying here thinking of perfect send-off advice: Make sure you try new things. Take advantage of every opportunity. Get to know your adviser. Don’t go two weeks without doing laundry because walking around in no underwear is gross.

Instead of any of this, I say “yes” and immediately regret the lost opportunity. The thing that’s surprised me most this week is the shock of finality, that time, which once seemed vast and endless, is now the most precious commodity of all. I can’t ask him tomorrow to show me how to sign up for Snapchat because tomorrow he’ll be gone.

“I can’t sleep,” he says. Sixteen years ago, I would have rubbed his head until he fell back asleep. Sixteen years ago, I had a full head of hair.

Four hours later, we’re greeted by cheerleaders as we pull our rented SUV into a line of similarly dazed parents and teenagers outside Gates Hall. The cheerleaders are a nice touch. So is the song, from our favorite coming-of-age movie, “Boyhood,” that my son plays as we drive up to the tree-lined street leading to campus. He’s got a nice flair for the dramatic.

For all of our prepping, all of our “This is the last time for a while that we’ll go to In-N-Out/see a movie at Metreon/eat a real burrito,” etc.,  we’re still sort of shocked that this is actually happening. Maybe it’s because the last month has been so intense, a return to the preteen days when we spent every waking hour together because we wanted to. The kid pulled a fast one on us, suddenly becoming the World’s Most Agreeable Teenager. Dirty trick.

Aided by stout members of the school’s football and soccer teams, we move into his dorm room. His roommate, an understated kid from Connecticut whose dad once owned a trucking business in Queens, is already there. Slowly, it comes together: Godzilla posters on the wall, Pottery Barn Dorm towels stashed in plastic Target mini-dressers, Xbox controllers sharing space with $500 worth of books on the desk because he’s got calculus, chemistry, intro to engineering and he took the wrong seminar class. “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse,” we learn later, has only one required book.

Eventually, they split us up so the kids can meet with their floormates and the parents can watch a video in which members of last year’s freshmen class hold up signs saying “Thanks, Mom and Dad! I couldn’t have done this without you,” sending everyone scrambling for the branded tissue boxes the school was kind enough to include in our move-in package.

Afterward, we reconvene in the quad, where the school president and the mayor of Easton give speeches. Then, suddenly, it’s time. “In five minutes,” the president tells us, “a bell will ring, signifying the beginning of the school year. That’s when the parents will have to leave.”

We all stand there, 675 families trying to pack 18 years of sage wisdom into one brief conversation. My mind races, then I realize: Actually, this isn’t the time for sage wisdom. Instead, I tell my boy, simply, “You’ve got this,” because he does, and close with our usual, the complicated Big Hero 6 fist bump (it ends with “fa-la-la-la-la”). See you at Thanksgiving.

We spend the weekend with friends before returning to California, determined not to text or call, half hoping he’ll text us but knowing that he shouldn’t. It’s not until Monday, as we wait to board our flight home, that we receive that first text. It’s simple, the prologue to a story whose plot we desperately want to learn, but to us it’s Pulitzer-worthy gold: “It’s amazing!” says our son. “College is amazing!”

Larry Rosen
Larry Rosen

Larry Rosen is a writer, husband, father and author of “The Rabbi Has Left the Building,” a memoir about his son’s bar mitzvah. He co-hosts the podcast “(Is It) Good for the Jews?”