About a year ago my oldest son left home. He was 24. It was his time. Moving out was right and proper. But I still miss him.
Three days ago, my middle son went off to school. He’s 18. I feel I barely got to know him as the a hairy, bearded creature he grew up to be. In my mind he’s a baby, a little kid, a silent teen: and now he’s gone.
Empty bedrooms in my house, always dark at night, parallel the dark and empty spaces in a father’s heart, where the constant living presence of his children used to be. My daughter, doomed to high school for three more years, does her best to fill those spaces. Her best is pretty good: but I miss my boys.
The currency of life isn’t time but experience, of which a strange fate has allowed me to accumulate more than my share. Though my life hasn’t been particularly adventurous, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of feeling accrued in the memory of long-gone moments. Every detail of family life, over decades, feels magical, like a fairy tale.
As I reflect on those experiences, it becomes clear to me that the most important weren’t happy and sunny, but the opposite. The difficult times, the moments of pain and conflict, the unhappy hour: they taught me about the needs and thoughts of the people around me, and about my own limits, my place within the perplexing human condition.
I started life, in my own mind, as an invulnerable superhero, but with the help of my offspring transitioned, quite contentedly, into a dazed and confused dad. That’s evolution in the right direction – an inching toward the light.
The supreme privilege of family life is that the tough times are shared – someone other than yourself worries that you have a stomach ache, or received a bad grade, or missed a promotion. For a time, we pool our weakness to become stronger. Fathers and mothers learn at once the insignificance of their own problems. Children learn by acting out their melodramas on the stage of discipline, in the theater of loving kindness.
The transcendental joy of family is of course that our little personal advancements are magnified, by a experiential echo chamber effect, into epic triumphs worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. From learning to ride a bike to graduation, it’s all done before a cheering crowd. Plus, there are people alive who care that tomorrow is your birthday. . .
In the bank of experience, I am a rich man. Far more in happy moments than sad: which, no doubt, explains the extent of my unwisdom. I have accumulated and stored away not only my own fumblings through life, but the upward stirrings of my children. They and I belonged to the same account.
No more. My two boys have reached the date when they must sail alone into a stormy world, and gather from the adventure wealth owed only to them. They will enjoy and they will suffer happy experiences and sad. I hope they continue to learn from life’s bumps and bruises, but I can’t protect them any longer. My experience of them will be from afar.
The campus where I left the middle son is very beautiful – stately in an old Virginia way, with lots of red brick, white Grecian columns, and century-old trees. For a precious few minutes I was left alone, sitting outdoors, taking in the scenery. A pale and fluttery-looking butterfly, I noticed, was struggling to fly up the side of a large building. It looked hopeless, and added to my gloomy temper.
A powerful instinct drove the frail butterfly upward. After a while, it gathered momentum. It seemed stronger, more certain of its destination, and finally soared far above the building into the gray sky.
So too, I realized, with my son: once so small and helpless, now grown bigger and bulkier than his dad. It was time to fly.