From the staff

Column: Son's graduation is a milestone for Dad, too

dbarkin@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2012 

About a month ago, I started having that dream again – the one where I’m in college and I’ve forgotten that I’m registered for a particular class and I’ve just remembered and today’s the final exam, and I’m toast.

My son graduated from N.C. State a couple of Saturdays back, and I know my dream was stress-induced. He had already started a full-time job in his new career, but he had this one class left to take in the fall semester. Try as we might not to be pests, my wife and I were sort of hanging on every paper and every test. How’d it go? How’s it going?

My son did not present corresponding signs of stress, and suggested, gently, that we follow his lead. He is an optimist. My heir’s belief system is founded on the conviction that things will work out. And, for him, they usually do.

The Friday night before graduation, at our home in Clayton, he was making preparations to go out, and I asked him where he was headed. He said he was going to play guitar with some friends in downtown Raleigh. Well, I said, don’t stay out too late because we have to all drive together to the graduation ceremonies before they start tomorrow morning at 9.

Incidentally, it is not my place anymore to tell him when he should call it a night, but these being special circumstances, I mentioned it and he said sure thing.

Sometime around 1 a.m., I rose to get a drink of water or something, and I noticed that his car wasn’t in the driveway. I hadn’t been awakened by his clomp, clomp, clomp through the house, a sound that I had begun to miss quite a bit since he was no longer usually under our roof. Not to worry, he’ll be along, I thought, worrying.

‘Kind of a pickle’

Shortly after 6 a.m., the phone rang. It was my son.

“I’m in kind of a pickle,” he began. “My car won’t start.”

Of all the pickle possibilities, this was the least troubling. I wished he had started with “My car won’t start” and skipped the ominous pickle intro, but that thought was overtaken by relief.

“I’ll come get you. Where are you?”

“I’m parked in the garage across from Marbles.”


Forty-five minutes or so later I was in the garage opposite the downtown Raleigh kids museum. My son folded his 6-foot frame into the front seat. We’d attend to his car later.

When we left Raleigh, it was 7:15 or so. I calculated that we were cutting it close. We had barely enough time to drive back to Clayton, pick up my wife and Meemaw, turn around quickly and get to the arena.

As we headed to the interstate, I asked when he discovered his car wouldn’t start.

Around a quarter till 2, he replied. Gee, I said, you should have called. I would have come to get you.

I didn’t want to wake you up, he said.

We drove onto I-40. Well, whose place did you stay at?

I didn’t, he replied. I slept in my car. They wouldn’t have gotten up early enough to take me back to the garage.

No big deal

This gave me pause. It had been a cold, upper South mid-December night. Rather than wake up mom and dad, he curled up in the back of the car, set the alarm on his phone and went to sleep. No big deal. He assessed the situation, looked at his options and made a reasonable decision.

I was still feeling some residual early-morning-phone-call anxiety as we drove along. He was calm, unruffled, confident that things were still on track. He dozed a little on the way. By the time we made Clayton, my wife had pressed his robe so he should look sharp; we made our preparations, and left for the big city.

As it turned out, we were 20 minutes to the good upon arriving at the PNC. After we navigated into a parking space, my son decamped to the staging area somewhere in the complex, where hundreds of winter graduates were assembling.

It was quite something to watch the red-robed procession make its way down the center aisle of the arena, particularly when one of those mortarboards was riding on the head of your own issue.

But the memory that will stick with me longer will be of the daybreak ride on that Saturday morning from Raleigh to Garner to home, with my sleepy, sensible young man in the passenger seat. Because on this, autumn’s final weekend, this was also the last road trip, him and me, for this chapter in our lives.

He was moving on, becoming his own man, and that meant that my role in his life would change. He might seek my counsel from time to time, and there might be the occasional dead-battery roadside assistance, actual or metaphorical, but mostly he would be making his decisions and running his affairs.

I had felt it coming, this winding down of my paternal administration, and as we were making our way southeast into the sunrise, a tightness gripped me by the throat, a helplessness in the face of the irreversible, unsentimental clock of life. My boy was leaving home, as sons always leave to make their own homes, and there was nothing I could do except hope that everything would work out.

Dan Barkin is senior editor at The News & Observer. or 919-829-4562

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