When my son David was 5, he played in a YMCA youth basketball league, though he was small for his age and handled the ball as if it were fresh out of a pizza oven. He also had to contend with a more athletic teammate named Quinn who regularly implored, “David, pass to me!”
David usually did so, but during a game late in his pointless season (pointless, in that he had scored no points), David decided he’d had enough. “Over here!” Quinn shouted.
David gave Quinn a quick glance, then suddenly dribbled past him and tossed up a running hook shot … Swish! The bleachers at the Lake Lynn Community Center erupted in cheers.
Now 19 years old and a strapping 6 feet tall, our firstborn is about to leave the nest. He’s moving four hours west from our home in Raleigh to Asheville for college. (His sister is a rising high school senior and, in a year, she’ll be gone too.)
I looked back on that game the other day when my wife, Alison, showed me a photo of David in his red YMCA uniform. She’d come across it while rooting around in the attic for household items for our son’s new apartment.
It was one of countless sentimental moments that have washed over me in the weeks leading up to David’s departure. Life has felt at times like one of those flashback-filled TV series finales.
Every year, 7 million sets of parents in the U.S. watch their college-bound sons and daughters move away for the first time. We know it’s coming, we’ve dreamed of and planned for it, but not until it’s happening do we recognize how singularly bittersweet a milestone it is.
This has been a woozy summer of often conflicting feelings: Excitement, melancholy, gratitude, worry, pride, shock (emotional and financial).
Certainly, some parents are thrilled to see young Ashley or Tyler vacate the premises after years of teenage drama, pigsty bedrooms, public belching and assaultive music.
And many kids view going away to college as an emancipation on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But it’s not like that for us. David generally has enjoyed being here, and we’ve generally enjoyed having him.
Furthermore, David fears change. Even at birth, he subjected his mother to 24 hours of labor and nearly an emergency C-section because he was perfectly content in the womb. David views the move to Asheville with a dizzying mix of joy, nervous anticipation and trepidation.
Who knows what experiences await David and me in the three or four decades that, one hopes, we’ll still have together? But this summer has felt like the true end of his childhood.
Parenting highs and lows
The highlight reel rolls on in my mind.
Seven years old: His first guitar lesson with Laurie Capparella at Harry’s Guitar Shop in Raleigh, a weekly ritual that lasted all the way to a few weeks ago, when they hugged and said goodbye.
Ten years old: A father-son road trip to New Jersey to see a Bruce Springsteen concert, then a detour to my boyhood home in Cherry Hill, N.J. – a place I hadn’t visited in many years and where on that day, I soaked in the sensation of standing with my son on the street where I learned to ride a bike.
Twelve years old: A backpacking trip in Grayson Highlands State Park, Va., where David toughed it out over steep, rocky trails and where we petted wild ponies and huddled close to each other inside a two-person tent when rain came.
Our relationship hit rough patches during David’s teenage years, when arguments seemed to rage daily and I saw some behavior that evoked parental hand-wringing. “Have we been too easy on him?” “Too hard?”
There was the bad argument one afternoon when he was 15: He fled from the house, and I tackled his then-still-undersized body on the front lawn – a humiliation for which I’ve never quite forgiven myself.
All the years of raising him, all the highs and lows, and suddenly, it seems, the kid is moving his belongings to an apartment in a city 250 miles away.
I hadn’t been sure what to expect these final weeks before the move. One possibility was that we wouldn’t see much of him, that he’d be out late nights with his girlfriend or spend most of his time secluded in his room, enveloped in summer laziness and mentally already checked out to Asheville.
Instead, David and I have spent more time together than we have in years. We’ve splashed around in the neighborhood pool (a place where he’d sooner be seen with Snooki than me just a year or two ago) and played catch in the backyard. We spent a three-day weekend in Asheville apartment hunting, taking in a minor-league baseball game and eating strange organic food.
I’ve observed, with a mixture of wonder and sadness, moments when David simultaneously seems a man and a little boy.
During a recent family vacation at Ocean Isle, I looked up from my sand chair to see David arriving at the beach after sleeping in late.
“Look Dad,” he said with a boyish smile, “I brought the football. Want to play with me?”
You love the man, but miss the little boy.
Yeah, I’ve been quite maudlin at times. And I know why. My emotions are as much about me getting older as David.
As David asks himself the 19-year-old’s questions – Who am I? Who am I going to be? – I’ve been asking myself the middle-age version of the same questions: Is this who I was meant to be?
On a recent Saturday, David and I were playing basketball for the first time in forever, at Shelley Lake, when rain interrupted us. As we stood under a large tree behind one of the goals, the sun poked through the clouds and we simultaneously spotted the end of a rainbow in a nearby meadow.
It was a real-life Hallmark moment that seemed impossible and almost unbearably beautiful.
It gave me and my son a sign to hold onto in the weeks and years to come.