Illustration: Jonathan Carlson
Illustration: Jonathan Carlson

The night before I take my oldest son to visit Texas A&M, my wife comes home to find me watching The Blind Side. It’s the scene where the Tuohy family is dropping off Michael Oher at Ole Miss. Sandra Bullock is all business to cover her emotions. She’s not crying, but I am. “What are you?” asks my wife, who’s worried I’m intentionally inflicting misery on myself. “An emotional cutter?”

She knows how much I’ve been looking forward to, and dreading, college visits with my oldest son, Henry. He’s 18 now and ready to go to college. I’m not ready to let him go, but I want to do this for him, to be the parent who helps him explore his options. I’ve been waiting for my turn to do this for years, and it’s time. When I tell my wife the next morning that I’m having difficulty picking out what to wear so I don’t embarrass him, she gently reminds me that it’s possible that taking my son (and her stepson) to visit a college is not about me. She doesn’t get it. This trip is a milestone. I’ve done it. I’ve raised a child whom colleges are competing for. My reward for his imminent departure is a walking tour of College Station.

Admittedly, it feels a little strange to be driving there at all. Henry grew up in a home where “The Eyes of Texas”—the University of Texas at Austin’s school song—was his first lullaby and we could see the UT Tower from our front yard. As a toddler, he once leapt out of his stroller to run toward Bevo—the school’s 1,500-some-odd-pound long-horned mascot. Thankfully, Bevo’s handlers noticed before Bevo did. Henry hates it when I tell this story, but you don’t easily forget the time the world’s most famous steer saw your son as a threat. It all turned out well. Bevo did not stomp my son to death, and a cheerleader let him “pet” the hulking mascot with a long scratching stick.

When I moved to Austin in the ’90s, UT traditionally played Texas A&M University during Thanksgiving weekend. Every other year, the sight of A&M’s Corps of Cadets in Austin felt like an invasion from a bygone era, when animal husbandry was a common course of study. When Henry came along, followed two years later by his brother, Hatcher, I raised them the best I knew how. They still think the real words of “The Eyes of Texas” include an insult to the University of Oklahoma and that the words to A&M’s fight song are “I want my mommy.”

Once, we visited the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, and the surrounding town made so little impression that later we wondered if perhaps it had been hiding out of view behind a large building. Not every college town can be Austin, of course, but this wasn’t a town. This was College Station. The name is so literal as to give rise to both mockery and pity, at least to many Austinites, yet at the same time it accurately connotes the general ambiance of a midsize city supported by a minimum-security prison. 

Although I didn’t attend UT, I was not an independent arbiter of colleges. I took my sons to UT basketball and baseball games and dragged them through the latest exhibits at the campus’ Harry Ransom Center so often they now hate the sight of the Gutenberg Bible. They’ve seen Andy Warhol’s “Farrah Fawcett” at the Blanton Museum of Art and listened politely to my stammered explanation about her importance to American men alive in the ’70s.

When I offered to do Henry’s laundry for four more years if he stayed in Austin to go to college, I thought I had closed the deal, but in the absence of the annual football game, it turns out his generation isn’t hanging onto childish rivalries. Also, it doesn’t hurt these days that Aggies are graduating with math and science degrees required for tech jobs in the big cities, including Austin. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve heard an Aggie joke, something I didn’t realize until Henry told me A&M was on his shortlist.

So we’re visiting A&M. I always knew this boy was going to college. I just never expected him to be interested in going to this college. And though I think he appreciates my offer to do his laundry, Texas A&M has a world-class zoology program, and Henry dreams of working on wildlife preserves in Africa. This is not new for him. Way back in middle school we looked up the top zoology schools in the country. I should have known then. Plus, his best friend is set on going to A&M. This entire town-versus-country, UT-versus-A&M thing was in my head, not his. It turns out I did a horrible job of warping my son’s mind, leaving him open to possibilities
and opportunities.

We took a selfie before we set off for College Station. He gave me a happy face, not the closed-mouth variety he usually placates me with. On the way out of town, we passed the comic book store where I got him the graphic novel his grandfather wrote, the sushi place he goes to with his mom, and the high school where he came into his own as a funny, tall, gorgeous kid. These are the bread crumbs of his childhood that I hope he’ll happily follow home, and often, but right now we’re tracing this line in the opposite direction, away from home and Austin. We take a right before we get to his favorite Whataburger, and before you know it we’re heading east toward the sun on US 290.

After almost an hour, we turn off 290 and, just past Sherwood Forest Faire, head northeast on State Highway 21. It feels like an abrupt change not just in direction but in worlds. The first gas station we see is called the Whoop Stop. Trees crowd the two-lane highway. The hills roll. I have to slow down. It’s quieter. We make forced conversation in the car before giving way to podcasts. He’s in that phase where I have to wait for him to emerge from his shell. He’ll go to a movie or watch football with me, but he’s closed off for the most part. He has a private life of his own now. There’s so much I haven’t shown him, too much left to do.

In one of the sparsely populated areas of Lee County, the land flattens into fields. We’re listening quietly to a Marc Maron interview while I run through a list of things I’ve never taught him. I taught him about a savings account, but did I ever tell him about taxes? For some reason I keep meaning to teach him how to tie the knots I learned in Boy Scouts—something he had no interest in. He’s read Beowulf, but does he know what bleach is for? “Do you even know how to do laundry?” I ask, abruptly turning the monologue in my head into a conversation with him.

“No,” he says, unfazed. “But I can always look up a tutorial on YouTube.”

Every wall is covered with homemade Aggie decorations. Every customer is wearing some type of A&M gear …a charming contrast to how corporate the ubiquity of burnt orange can feel in Austin.

I am instantly relieved, both of stress and of duty. I’m not sure what I’m still doing here for him. It’s been years since he needed my help doing homework. Maybe we can talk on the ride back.

My aunts and uncles used to tell me how much the thought of my younger cousins leaving for college pained them. “Empty Nest Syndrome,” they called it. This made no sense to me. At the time, my life was an endless list of obligations and unmet emotional needs. My oldest was in diapers then, and I suppose he felt pretty much the same way—except he needed his diaper changed. The idea of my children going to college seemed like a blue sky opening up in my windshield. “You can do whatever you want!” I’d say, wondering why they sounded resigned about the plans they’d made to finally go to Europe or take an African dance class at the community college. They’d look at me with an expression I now understand as sparing.

To be fair, these are hard emotions to put into words. You only get your heart broken a few times in your life. Love affairs end on their own, marriages conclude when death does us part or the judge says so. We’re not told that our children will break our hearts. Maybe we are and don’t hear it. I remember my mom crying when I left for college and was so excited about my future that I didn’t register what was happening to her. My son is tall, handsome, funny, and smart. He’s optimistic about the future I’m taking him to explore, and as much as I have dreamed about taking him on a college visit, I have dreaded the day when he would leave my home to actually go there. Now I get it. I can mark a day on the calendar when I’m going to get my heart broken. Empty Nest Syndrome just sounds nicer.

I’m driving him to what feels like the end of the road for me, and I need to pee. By my watch, it will take less than an hour to get from Lee County to College Station, but that doesn’t seem possible. We’ve been on this road for some time, and if there’s been a building taller than two stories I missed it. I pull over at the next roadside gas station in Old Dime Box, an unincorporated dot on the map, just to say I’ve been there. As far as I can tell, this place could be the whole town. That’s not to say people don’t live full lives out here.

The gas station has a plywood walkway outside and homemade baked goods for sale inside the clear plastic display case behind the register. A state trooper is jawboning the lady at the cash register, and she seems happy for the company. I’ve lived in Moscow. I’ve chaperoned Henry’s band trip to Carnegie Hall. I’ve woken up in a high-rise hotel on Waikiki and looked out over the awesome expanse of the Pacific Ocean. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt as far from Austin, or any big-city bubble, as I do walking into that gas station. Maybe that’s because I don’t have a single skill that could get me a job around here. I can’t even work a cash register. I can tie a bowline, but if I’m dependent on tending to the fields of crops out yonder, I’m going hungry. Heck, because of a yoga injury, I couldn’t even bend over to pick whatever is growing outside. I may be sophisticated, but I’m useless.

We drive on for a bit, through Caldwell, then more of SH 21, with churches and a pecan farm, before crossing the Brazos River. The green, wet farmland gives way to outcroppings of a bigger city—the airport and massive testing facilities. The buildings take on an institutional scale, imposing and unified in color and purpose. The signs are expecting you and happy to direct you to the right place. College Station welcomes you with a calm, confident voice. Right this way, it says, you’re exactly where you should be.

We kill some time at a McDonald’s across the street from campus. Every wall is covered with homemade Aggie decorations. Every customer is wearing some type of A&M gear. It’s charming, I confess—a nice contrast to how corporate the ubiquity of burnt orange can feel in Austin.

The admissions cattle call is less homemade but even more boosterish. I might be the only parent out of a couple hundred attending the admissions presentation not wearing maroon. (I opted for neutral gray.) My son surprises me by asking a question about a gap year. He’s excited about everything. Clearly he’s not having the culture shock I am.

The weather is muggy during the campus tour, and it rains on and off, but Henry’s in a good mood. He pays close attention to the tour guide, and a lot of the coeds are paying close attention to him. I throw a glance his way. Nothing is fazing him. I know he is taller than I am, but when did he grow, you know, up?

When we get to the quad where the Corps dorms are, he falls in love, and not with a student, but with a dog. If he plays in the marching band, he’ll have to join the Corps of Cadets and wear a uniform every day. I figured this would be when he’d look at me and say, “We can leave now.” But this is when, for the first time, he hears about Reveille—A&M’s version of Bevo, though a diminutive collie—and how a sophomore member of the Corps is entrusted with the dog’s care.

“Dad,” he says, “maybe they’ll let me take care of Reveille!”

He’s joking a little to let me know that, in the two hours we’ve been on campus, he’s chosen his school. The shtick about the school being one big family sold him. Later he tells me he isn’t sure about the school in Philadelphia we had wanted to visit because it’s so far from home. Leaving is on his mind, too. College Station is only a couple of hours away from home, and the drive is pretty if you like looking at farmland. The traffic’s not too bad, either, unless you hit Austin during rush hour—something I’m not sure they have in College Station.

I take heart that A&M’s close enough for me to drop by sometime to take him and his friends out to dinner yet far enough away that he’s going to have to learn how to do his laundry, as well as a million other things, for himself. Also, it’s still Texas. You can get Tex-Mex and barbecue in College Station. They take pride in being friendly to strangers. And at the end of the day, educated kids are their cash crop. You could do worse.

We get an excuse note for his high school, buy A&M-branded socks for his younger brother, and hit the road. I’m a little shocked to see how quickly we’re out of the campus and into Texas again, how soon the buildings yield to the fields and the big sky, now turning gray again. I know this drive now. It will be the one I take to drop him off for his move-in. It will be the one I take to visit him for parents’ weekend and if he ever needs me or just wants to see me. And it will be the one he takes home.

But that’s all in the future. For the next two hours, he’s mine, and there’s so much left to say. I don’t know where to start but figure I’ll break the ice with some embarrassing story about how I was an idiot in high school. I turn down the music, take a deep breath, look at him, and realize this conversation will have to wait.

He’s snoring.

That’s OK. As I drive us back to Austin, I realize this is not even close to the last trip for us. I had been building up his leaving for college so much in my head that it had become a breakup, not a transition. We’ll text. We’ll talk about the classes he’s taking, who ends up caring for Reveille, and what his summer jobs are. Everything doesn’t need to be said right now. I can teach him about laundry later. The road goes on forever, but the parenting never ends

Where do you want to go today?

Where do you want to go today?

From the May 2019 issue

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