My Son Is Leaving Soon for College. I’ve Already Started Saying Goodbye.
I encourage him to spend time away from us, without even realizing it.
I’ve reached a point in my life with my oldest son where he is on the precipice, on the verge of taking his first step. Not his first step as a human — he took that step long ago in our little corner house framed by crepe myrtles, and we were there to catch him if he fell. I’m also not talking about the step he took when he went on his first summer camp and I knew full well he hadn’t packed everything but thought to myself, This is good. There will be some suffering, but he will learn from his forgetfulness and he will learn the value of organization.
And I’m definitely not referring to the day he earned his driver’s license, got in his car, alone, and drove to school, joining the bustling traffic. My 16-year-old son, the newly minted commander of a 10-year-old ship he had bought with money earned from several part-time jobs, was full of excitement at his newfound freedom.
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My oldest son is preparing to leave home next year, and in spite of that revelation, in recent months I have found my demeanor toward him to be less about affection and more about preparation. Maybe that, in itself, is a form of fatherly love. No longer do I worry about the hard falls, but instead, I allow him to hit the brick walls that comprise his teenage life. When I see that he is falling short, I do not step in and snowplow for him. Instead, I watch him fail, hoping that the consequences he faces ring much louder in his ears than my faint voice. I told you so.
I’ve spent the past nearly 17 years teaching this kid everything. How to walk, talk, eat, whistle, wink, snap, run, throw, catch, poop, wipe, pee, shower, brush, spell, count, read, cycle, fish, shoot, dodge, surf, snowboard, drive, and love. Now that the SATs have been taken, and the college list is refined, I find myself obsessively preparing him for his departure.
I find myself encouraging him — yes, encouraging him — to spend time away from us. When he has free time after lacrosse practice, I recommend he go get a burrito with his buddies instead of coming home to have dinner with us. On school breaks, rather than spend time with him playing ping pong in the garage, I tell him that his decision to go earn extra money at his part-time job is a good way to fill his time. I know once he’s gone I will regret not having more time with him, but I nudge him toward independence — I’m not even sure why.
He was our first child, the catalyst that changed our lives. My oldest son made me become a father and for the first time in my life, I recognized Father’s Day. Growing up, I’d watch other kids in school make gifts for their dads in class, big-lettered, construction paper cards folded in half. I never made one because there was nobody to give it to, but now, my son made them for me and I’ve kept all of them in treasure bins known as Forever Boxes.
But not all of it is stowed. In my truck, hanging from my rearview mirror is the wooden necklace he made me in kindergarten. I have never taken it down. In my office, one of his Father’s Day gifts, a small ceramic pot with a foam head crafted into a tie-wearing dad, sits proudly on display near a career’s worth of military medals. To me, it is the most valuable thing in the room, an accolade I earned in 2005: The World’s Greatest Dad.
I can’t help but wonder, Have I done all I can to prepare him? As he gets ready to make his way, how will he look back on his life with me? It’s easy to be the world’s best dad to a 3-year-old. Armpit farts, overly animated readings of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, and an occasional trip to Krispy Kreme, and you’re golden. But when it mattered, did I give him the best advice? Was I a good example? Did I do enough to give him a good compass heading? Does he know I love him?
I suppose those questions and more will be answered when he leaves. But for now, as Father’s Day approaches, it is on my mind as are thoughts of fatherhood with him. How we napped on the couch when he was a baby, his entire body on my chest, sweating and slobbering all over me. How I taught him to shoot Cheerios with his pee to encourage him to use the toilet. The thrill in his eyes the first time his bat connected with a baseball or his excitement at his first lacrosse goal. How he pulled my finger. Fell for it every time. My dad jokes. His eye roll.
The day he was born I felt lucky to be the third person on this planet to touch him (his mom being first, the doctor being second). At least I placed.
He is the second person, after my wife, to touch me in ways I didn’t know possible or understand. He has been a daily presence in my life for 17 years. Try as I may, I can’t explain the worry. The pride. The love. It is the longest and closest relationship I have had with another man.
Steve Alvarez is a married father of four residing in Austin, Texas. He writes about fatherhood in the suburbs at burbdad.com.
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