Rick Bragg on Parenting

Award-winning journalist Rick Bragg shares thoughts on the departure of his son—and his "empty nest."

Rick Bragg
Illustration by Joe McKendry

The boy has gone off to college now. And here I am, left with all the peace and quiet I have learned not to miss.

I was not a man who wished for children. It seemed contrary to the notion of human happiness, like wishing for chiggers, or tinnitus, or the more awful forms of gout. I was single most of my life, and parenthood was something that afflicted other people. I watched it from a distance, and shuddered.

When they were small, children seemed to scream for no apparent reason. As teenagers, they seemed to lose all sanity, pinging through mood swings like Ricochet Rabbit and marking their bodies with more tattoos than a harpooner from Moby-Dick, while listening to music with more foul language than my uncles used drunk at a rooster fight. In between infancy and high school graduation (if their parents were lucky), they were mostly just unclean.

Voices and Views
Illustration by Steve Wacksman

Then one entered my life. I did not plan on him. He just came in the package, like a ninth piece of chicken in an eight-piece box, and, in time, made me pay for all the happiness I had enjoyed. He was 11 when he appeared, past the screaming years and before the age where everything that fell from my mouth was deemed idiotic. I got him in the unclean years, when I tried to avoid close contact with him because I was never quite certain where he had been. This is the child who once licked spaghetti sauce off the underside of his arm. No more needs to be said.

When he discovered girls he got much cleaner, but suddenly I was unfit to be around. I always said the wrong thing, or a dumb thing, or too loud a thing. When he had a girl over, I was banished to whatever room he was farthest from, like a cave troll.
“I used to be cool,” I said. “Some people think I still am.”

He gave me a pitying look. So did his mom.

And now he is gone to college and I miss him, which is how I know there is indeed a God and He is a great Prankster, and knows how to make a man pay for his transgressions.

He remembers that long-ago day I sulked in my airplane seat, thinking over and over that the screaming baby one row over should’ve been left at home, even if it meant her grandparents wouldn’t see her until the cotillion.

I am not alone in this sadness in our house, in this empty nest. I barely even had a nest, before it was empty, though I guess I have no one to blame but me. His mom misses him, too, of course. Even the dog misses him.

The dog loved the boy. Woody Bo met him every day at the door after school, knowing he was home because every time the boy locked his car, it gave a short, quick honk. Woody, who is too fat to jump (usually), bounded into the air at the sound, defying gravity, flinging rugs about, and destroying furniture on a wild-eyed dash to the door. A dog should love his boy, I suppose.

His world is in pieces now. The boy has been gone for months. The dog will not even go in his room—not one time since he left. Recently, my wife had to use the boy’s car and, unsure if she had locked it, aimed the fancy remote thingamajig at the window and pressed “lock.” The horn gave its quick honk, and the dog bounded into the air and raced to the door, his tail wagging.

He sat there a long time.

I guess I know how he feels.

Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author. His seven books include the bestselling memoir All Over but the Shoutin’.

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