I waved goodbye as Jack’s bus pulled away that Monday morning, spiriting him and about 50 other kids away to the Days in the Arts program out at Tanglewood. As I headed to my car, I felt quite the lump in my throat. I recognized the emotion. It was the emotion I felt when I was 17, and waving to my parents as my Boston-bound plane taxied me away from my Indiana home for good. Except this was in reverse. And I was completely unprepared.
My wife and I aren’t away from our two kids that often — a few nights at Otherworld, and 3 or 4 nights if we both make it away to Tanglewood ourselves for a residency. Oh sure, we’ll have date nights here and there, thanks to our favorite babysitter or the generosity of our parents, and Jack has had a few sleepovers. No big deal, right? Five days without Jack. We’ll deal, right? It means more quality time with Peter, right?
He was only 11, but it felt like he had left for college.
We could send him emails which the staff would dutifully print out and hand him. But he had no electronics, so he couldn’t call or write back. We had a Facebook group that we eagerly checked for pictures or status updates, but they were few and far between. It was a communications gap that could easily have been what my folks felt when I was going through freshman orientation and picking classes and calling them only once every few days, if that. We knew he was having fun, and we couldn’t share it as a family. Somehow it was harder with only one boy gone, because it felt too much like the day seven years from now when only one boy will be gone.
My wife said it felt like a piece of her was missing, all week. Peter, despite having other good friends, still probably considers Jack his best playdate. He pined for Jack every day. I could distract myself somewhat with work, and Katherine distracted Peter with playdates and the local pool. But we counted down the days until his return.
And when he did return he was… just a little different. Five days away had made him more confident (and a little obnoxious… some manners were forgotten along the way.) Far from being homesick, he was ready to go right back! There was some retraining on how to live under our roof… just as Katherine and I remember having to re-learn some rules when we came back from college during those first few breaks.
I came to realize a few things:
- I will have a little more empathy for my kids when we leave them with grandparents for 3-4 days while we go to Tanglewood ourselves… or any time I leave on a multi-day business trip.
- I don’t know how my mom and dad can handle it when they say goodbye and climb in the car or head into the airport for the trip back to Indiana, or when they drop us off for our flight back to Boston. This is the first time I think I’ve truly shared that complicated emotion: pride and wistfulness and happiness and mourning the faded past.
- I understand better why Katherine’s folks visited her at least once a month while she was going to college in New Jersey.
- I’ve heard that the two most stressful times in a marriage are when you have kids and when your kids leave the house. I always thought the second one was because suddenly empty-nesters had to rediscover how to be a couple again. Now I realize it’s just as much because the family unit you’ve cultivated for 18+ years is
- I’ve been blessed by not having any loved ones in my immediate family suddenly taken from me. I can’t imagine the grief when I can barely survive five days without my son. The suffering of the so-called “Gold Star” families takes on new color.
Jack will no doubt crave more ‘sleep away’ camps in summers to come, just like I went to ‘nerd camps’ and academic competitions at Ball State, Purdue, Indianapolis, and Orlando. It will probably get easier for all of us.
But I’m not ready to redefine us. Not yet.