Courtesy Simon & SchusterToday is my son Matthew’s last night at home before college.
I have been emotionally blindsided. I know that this is good news. Matthew will go to a great school, something we as a family have worked hard at for years. I know that this is his finest hour. But looking at the suitcases on his bed and at his dog watching him pack sends me out of the room to a hidden corner where I can’t stop crying.
Through the grief, I feel a rising embarrassment. “Pull yourself together!” I tell myself. There are parents sending their kids off to battle zones or putting them into rehab programs. How dare I feel so shattered?
One of the great gifts of my life has been having my boys, Matthew and Johnowen, and through them, exploring the mysterious, complicated, and charged bond between fathers and sons. As my wife, Sheryl, and I raised them, I have discovered the depth of our relationship and the love and loss that flowed between my father and me. After my parents’ divorce, when I was four, I spent weekends with my dad in Ohio. By the time Sunday rolled around, I was incapable of enjoying the day’s activities because I was already dreading the inevitable goodbye of the evening.
Now, standing among Matthew’s accumulation of possessions, I realize it’s me who has become a boy again. All my heavy-chested sadness, loss, and longing to hold on to things as they used to be are back, sweeping over me as they did when I was a child.
In front of Sheryl and Matthew, I’m doing some of the best acting of my career. I smile like a jack-o’-lantern and affect a breezy, casual manner—positive sentences only and nothing but enthusiasm framing my answers to Matthew’s questions.
“Do you think it’s cold in the dorms in the winter?” he asks in a voice that seems smaller than it was days ago.
“Nah!” I lie, having no idea what his new room for the next four years will be like. This line of questioning is irrelevant, anyway, since Sheryl is preparing for any possible scenario, as is her genius. Among her strengths is the ability to put anything a human being could possibly need into a suitcase. Or a box. Or a FedEx container.
Matthew’s dog, Buster, watches me incredulously as his owner sorts through his winter jackets. Buster seems to be the only member of our family to see what a wreck I am.
“You disgust me,” he seems to say, looking at me with his chocolate eyes. “Get a backbone, man!”
The clothes are off the bed and zipped into the bags. His bed is tidy and spare; it already has the feel of a guest bed. In my mind I replay wrapping him in his favorite blanket like a burrito. That was our nightly ritual until one evening he said, “Daddy, I don’t think I need blanky tonight.”
I think of all the times we lay among the covers reading, first me to him, Goodnight Moon and The Giving Tree, and later him to me: my lines from The West Wing or a movie I was shooting. The countless hours of the History Channel and Deadliest Catch. I look at the bed and think of all the recent times I was annoyed at how late he was sleeping. I’ll never have to worry about that again, I realize.
For his part, Matthew has been a rock. He is naturally very even-keeled, rarely emotional; he is a logical, tough pragmatist. True to form, he is treating his impending departure as just another day at the office. And I’m glad. After all, someone’s gotta be strong.
Our younger son, Johnowen, will be staying behind and returning to high school, and now it’s time for them to say goodbye. I’ve been worried about how Johnowen will handle the departure of his big brother. Only two years apart, they share most of the same friends, which is to say that Johnny hangs with all the older boys who are also leaving home. My sons are very close in that vaguely annoyed constant companionship that brothers can share (if they are lucky).
In the driveway, Matthew gives Johnowen a laconic high five. “Peace,” Matthew says, clearly going out of his way to avoid any emotion or drama. Johnowen, whose passion runs just barely under the surface, is a little taken aback. He looks at me, sad and bemused, and I know what he is thinking: “That’s my brother! A cool cucumber till the end.” He watches Matthew hop into the car for the ride to the airport.
On the plane, we have two seats together and one apart. Matthew chooses to sit with Sheryl, and I see how happy it makes her. Then on go the headphones, and not a word is shared for most of the flight. Sheryl and I look at each other and smile. “Teenagers.”
An amber evening light fills the cabin as we flee the setting sun, heading east. I’ve taken a break from reading and am staring at my boy. The light from his window is cutting across his face, accentuating his cheekbones and strong jawline, making him look unbearably handsome and grown-up. He might as well be a young businessman headed to a meeting.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on him in the delivery room. “He’s blond!” was my first thought. And I remember what I whispered to him when his eyes opened for the first time: “Hello. I’m your daddy. And I will always be there for you.”
Sheryl has looked up from her iPad and mouths to me, “Are you OK?” I want to be, for her. But something about her face and the way she is looking at me while I am looking at him pulls the rug out again, and I avert my eyes from her, from him.
Just as we land, I take one more peek at Matthew. If he has any emotion about any of this, he is not showing it. I’m proud that he is charging into the first chapter of his adult life with such confidence.
We drive onto the historic, grand, and beautifully intimidating campus with our rental car packed with Matthew’s belongings. Stuck in a line of cars, I am cursed again with idle time to contemplate the day ahead of me. But today, for the first time, the overpowering melancholy is gone, the bittersweet nostalgia, too, replaced by an envious, excited adrenaline. To be at the true beginning! To be moments away from meeting strangers, some of whom will change your life forever! To have the opportunity to discover yourself, your true adult self, away from any of the tentacles of childhood!
I didn’t go to college. At 17, I left home to go on location for my first movie. The first private space of my own wasn’t a dorm room; it was a hotel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn’t have to navigate a brand-new, totally foreign ecosystem of fellow students and faculty; I was thrown unceremoniously into a strange group of actors and crew members. For the first time that I can think of, I have no personal life experience to draw from to guide my son. My first and only college experience will be through him.
While we unload in front of the Gothic-style dorm, the welcoming upperclassmen do crazy, exuberant dances as they grab boxes to help. Matthew and I leave Sheryl to handle her masterwork in his room. I will handle other issues: finding the best pizza and a gym where he can continue jujitsu, purchasing a bicycle and discovering where to stash it.
I’m surprised at how little we say to each other and how good that feels. I think it’s a result of years spent in each other’s company. Not just dinner or good-nights or drop-offs; it was time coaching his teams, being in the stands, on fishing boats, in the water surfing or diving, watching stupid television, standing up to teachers, parents, other kids, or anyone who so much as thought about treating him badly.
We put in the time together; we built this thing we have of comfort and love. And now, as we both prepare to let go of each other, it is paying off. That evening, even though his dorm room is ready, he says, “Dad, I think I’ll just stay with you and Mom tonight.” I catch Sheryl’s eye; this time, it’s hers that are moist.
The next morning, after all the freshmen file out of the chapel after convocation, Matthew shows his first signs of uncertainty. The president’s speech was an ode to them: “the most highly accomplished” class ever accepted in “the most competitive year” in the school’s history. It took this elegant ceremony among a sea of strangers for Matthew to realize the stakes.
“Dad, what if it’s too hard for me here?” he asks me later, sitting on his foldout bed back at the hotel.
“You came from a very tough academic school with great grades. You took the tests, you got the scores, you did the hours, and you did the travel and extracurriculars. You made it happen. This won’t be any different. This school chose you because they know you can succeed here.”
“None of the other kids look scared at all,” he says.
For the first time I can remember since he was a baby, I can see that his eyes are welling up. I want to reach out and hug him, but I don’t. Instead, I look him in the eye.
“Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”
He nods and turns away.
“I think I might take a nap.”
“Sure, I’ll wake you in a while,” I say.
He curls up in a ball, like he used to. I unfold a blanket and cover him, tucking it underneath, rolling him in it, like a burrito.