The house is empty when my phone buzzes. It’s my daughter.
She is a first-year college student and has been at school for less than a week on the opposite side of the country.
The worry her message conjures is a gut punch. I immediately recall our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. The airport was mobbed. And while the mob was masked, it wasn’t socially distanced. We were jostled, crammed in close quarters. I felt a sweaty arm touch mine. It didn’t feel safe.
Frankly nothing about this feels safe. That is perhaps the defining sentiment of what should have been a milestone moment as a parent: sending my kids off to college.
I have two daughters, twins. They have been and will always be the best thing my wife and I have ever done. I am so hopeful and excited for them. I am so excited to see the adults they are becoming. But I am terrified for them as well. Heading off to college mid-pandemic with no end in sight.
The run-up to this moment has been a relentless barrage of “CAMPUS REOPENING PLANS” messaging from both schools volleyed over a slurry of unsettling daily news reports. Public health updates. Testing webinars. The girls’ colleges tell us about new coronavirus protocols, housing contracts. They tell us they are increasing testing to twice weekly. All of this is intended to reassure. But none of it is reassuring. It is fucking terrifying. Do I feel better knowing that my kids will be quarantined for weeks before classes begin? That students and faculty will be tested more often? Yes, of course. But also, my god, NO. Not at all.
It doesn’t help that my daughters are now in school on opposite coasts. The closest school is a full day’s drive away. The other? It would take a week on the road. This seemed a manageable thing pre-COVID. Now it is a logistical complication with painful consequences. My wife and I had planned to drop the girls off together, to help them move in, decorate their rooms, get them properly settled. We’d take them to college as a family. One first, then the other. But a spike in coronavirus cases and the idea of so many flights and so much exposure caused us to reconsider.
So I said goodbye to my first daughter at 4:30 a.m. as she headed off to catch an early flight to school. Our farewell was short, hazy, and not at all what I wanted it to be. My wife called me later that afternoon in tears, parked at the side of the road, alone. Baby A, our nickname for our firstborn twin, was off to college.
So many plans ruined in the run-up to this milestone. College drop-off was just one more. Graduation. Senior formal. The long farewell of senior spring. And now the first year of college. My kids graduated in a car. Performances we’d looked forward to, performances they’d prepared for all year, simply didn’t happen.
Mourning the loss of such things at a time when others are mourning loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of…their humanity, is an embarrassing privilege. I feel like an asshole. So much else is at stake. So many greater pains. But also: I don't care that I am an asshole. My daughters have left home during this awful moment. I fear for them. I am a parent and that is what parents do. I want my daughters out in the world pursuing their dreams as much as they can, but above all, I want them safe. As Steve Jobs once said paraphrasing Elizabeth Stone, "Having a kid is like having your heart running around outside your body.” Right now that heart is running around on either coast in what may or may not be a pandemic petri dish.
The night before I drop my second daughter off at a leafy New England university, I can't sleep despite a particularly grueling early morning flight across the country. I stupidly check Twitter and learn there are now 531 COVID-19 cases at the University of Alabama and another 160 at the University of Missouri. I am awake all night.
The ride to campus is upbeat, caffeinated. For a half hour, it’s almost like there is no pandemic. But when we arrive on campus, it is dead. Empty. It’s not a college; it’s a scene from a Stephen King novel. There are no welcoming festivities, no registration tables for sports and clubs. Just a handful of people behind a plexiglass shield checking off the names of incoming first-year students who’ve completed their first right of passage: a mandatory COVID-19 test.
My daughter has been given a load-in time slot to ensure social distancing and to limit possible exposure to the virus. She is one of two new students moving into this dorm at the appointed time. I am not allowed to accompany her inside, so she totes the elephantine suitcases we’ve dragged across the country up to her room alone. I watch her through a long vertical window, bouncing them up step by step. She seems so very small, far away.
I have no idea what her room looks like. I hope it's nice.
Opposite my daughter's dorm, there is another parent watching her son wrangling a fridge inside. Masked, we exchange a look that I can’t quite describe, but it is simultaneously sympathetic and scared. "He's never been away from home before,” she says, “and this..." she gestures generally at the incalculable everything of the current moment. She trails off without finishing the thought. She doesn’t need to. And anyway, she is clearly trying not to cry. I know this because I am also trying not to cry. It is much harder than I thought.
Today the empty-nest despair that has been building steadily over the past year is accompanied by an additional anguish. Am I sending my daughters off to their doom? I know this is hysterical, paranoid. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a possibility. Is it? Then what the fuck are we doing here?
Saying goodbye is physically painful. Afterward, I call my wife from the side of the road. She wanted to be here, but isn’t. Baby B is off to college.
The first pictures from college we get from our daughters are of shitty packaged quarantine meals. The view through their dorm room windows. An empty hallway. None include other students, new friends. Occasionally, these images are accompanied by messages of coronavirus uncertainty, rumors of just how many sick students will force a closure. One tells us of an angry email from an RA reprimanding some in the dorm for not observing social distancing and endangering the dorm, their peers, the university, and the town in which it resides. This is first-year orientation in 2020: a game of keep away. My daughter, daily, mourns the lack of bonding and connection that would be occurring at a different moment. “We’re supposed to be meeting people, making friends.” She hasn’t yet finished the first week of her two-week quarantine, so that can’t happen.
Later that day we get a text from our other daughter, who’s just started classes. “Dance!” she exclaims. Then, “contemporary over Zoom.” Sad trombone. But! She is happy, so we are happy. Still, I can’t stop thinking about my daughter dancing alone in her room in front of a laptop screen. She should be in a studio with her peers, exuberant. I try not to think about the loans, the debilitating debt we are taking on for such opportunities. So many other things to worry about...
...Like “riots,” which is what my parents want to discuss when they call. There is so much civil unrest these days, and they worry about their granddaughters living on their own. I patiently explain that the discord is confined and far from the girls’ schools. But my stomach drops anyway. Because confined for how long? The president is telling tales about fictional planeloads of violent antifa being shipped in to peaceful protests.
I know this isn't true. But I also know another truth: Many will believe that it is, just as they believe that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is plotting against the president. Things will get worse. This year, worse always seems the inevitable destination.
The thing is they are both mostly happy. Classes have begun, and they’re slowly starting to meet people. They are wading through this.
My daughter FaceTimed me the other day to tell me she had a dream about her twin sister dying. “In a car crash,” she says in reply to my stunned silence. OK, not COVID-19, but it doesn’t matter. My primitive dad brain goes immediately to the worst place possible. I feel something I have not felt since an awful moment in the neonatal intensive care unit 18 years ago when my daughters were born. She sees this and makes a joke about twin telepathy. “Wait, are you crying?” she asks.
The following morning there is another Campus Public Health update in my inbox. It is one of many. It is also the worst so far.
We have finished our first week of testing, and as classes begin and we’ve completed a few thousand tests, we can report that two students have tested positive for COVID-19. Two employees have also tested positive.
All four people have been isolated and are being cared for. They are being contact-traced. The school is on point, and I appreciate the transparency. That said, the miasma of anxiety the news summons is overwhelming.
But it’s also a good reminder to finish up our extraction plan. Both schools have told us that we need one in the event a COVID-19 surge on campus requires us to evacuate our daughters.
I don’t know how that will work. Honestly, I’m not sure how any of this will work. ●