As I write this, my second oldest son sleeps on the other side of our hotel room. An incoming sophomore in college, he's already successfully made one transition – leaving our Midwest home for school on the east coast.
Less than a year later, we're ushering him through another change. He's decided that the university he attended as a freshman isn't the right fit, and he's transferring to a new school for the fall. He's found a great college for his personality and interests, which, alas, is 3,000 miles in the other direction. And so we're spending Father's Day weekend in Southern California, looking for apartments and generally getting the lay of the land.
Convenient it isn't! But all the same, I marvel at his agency and independence. He's optimistic and excited, if perhaps a bit nervous.
As his parent, I get to deal with different emotions. I'm proud of him and for him. I'm excited for him to grow and sad to see him move even further away. And I'm coming to grips with being in a different stage of life and what it means for me. It's an incredible choice, the choice of love – knowing that what you care about so much will leave you behind and that while you are better for having had it, you feel smaller for having let it go, too.
In my nostalgia, I'm getting lost in memories, both to come to terms with saying goodbye and to help myself navigate what it means for my life that I'm old enough to have kids in college. I've been leafing through pictures and reading old journal entries, reminiscing, remembering, and sometimes, maybe a bit, trying to grab it all back like bubbles floating away from me on the wind.
But there's nothing to grab onto, and the bubbles pop in the morning sunlight, leaving water on my face.
Browsing through pictures, I find an image of the driveway outside our home. There's a large redbud tree, brilliant pink in the spring and now expansive and green in early summer. The picture conjures memories of my children hanging from a rope swing they wanted me to build. It wasn't much – a bare rope and a wood bench – something secure but not so safe as to be no fun.
I hear my children's voices laughing as they toss back and forth, clamoring to see who will go next. They used it so often that the rope left a mark in the bark, burrowing itself into the branch so deeply that, for a time, the tree began to envelop it. Their joy became part of the tree; the tree's support enabled their joy.
The swing is long gone now. The kids outgrew it years ago.
As I think of this, I wipe something off my cheek.
The picture reminds me of another moment last fall, as we were getting ready to take my son in the other direction to the east coast. I found myself standing in that same driveway, choking on a lump in my throat as I loaded the car with all his belongings. There were only a few more small bags to put into the back of the car, but I couldn't lift them.
I began procrastinating, absent-mindedly looking for something else to do.
I turn and see the tree hanging over the driveway. I walk under the canopy, looking up. I hear laughter. "Push me, Daddy, push me!"
I try to find the mark from the rope, the wear into the biggest branch from years of play. I can't see it from the ground, so I step up on the rock wall to get a closer look. I hoist myself up towards the largest branch, pulling my face closer. For a moment, I think I can almost spot a deep scar in the bark, the testament to happy childhood summers promised and delivered.
But as I draw near, I realize the mark isn't there any longer.
It is in my heart, but it's not on the branch.
The tree has grown around the experience. It has healed itself and, in the process, has transformed.
To all the dads out there who have the strength to care and the courage to let go, and especially to my dads, Happy Father's Day.