Trying Not to Dwell on That Day We Will Send Him Off on His Own

The other day my son Sean and I were waiting in the doctor’s office for his annual checkup. On the
wall was one of those public health posters describing developmental milestones for children, from two months to five years and beyond. It included markers such as “is more creative with make-believe play” and “cooperates with other children.” I joked that as a teenager he had mastered this one: “Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn’t change.” We had a good laugh.

Sean is 17, a senior in high school. Next year he goes off to college. He’s in the throes of the university application mini-drama now, and the nearest school he’s considering is a four-hour drive. A day is coming that I don’t really want to think much about, the day we leave him at the dorm and take that long walk back to the car for the drive home. So I find myself measuring out this year as one of lasts: the last soccer game, the last Aikido practice, the last morning I hug him before he races off to the school bus.

But this is the season of giving thanks, and the relatives will soon arrive, so I set these melancholy ruminations aside to focus on the tasks at hand: stocking up on groceries and cleaning house. And thankful I am: I have a beautiful wife I adore, two kids for whom I’d step in front of an oncoming train were the need to arise, a job I love. I have nothing to complain about.

Yet everywhere there are signs of the stalking horse that is time. My best friend just celebrated his 50th birthday, and mine is fast approaching; I look in the mirror and see a face that has virtually nothing to do with the one I saw five minutes ago when I was 20. More to the point, I’ve lost three chums in the last couple of years; they were beset by a variety of ailments, but all went before their time.

And as we watch our children grow up my wife and I, as members of the sandwich generation, also contemplate what comes next with our aging parents. The last decade was all about the joys and travails of raising kids to eventually leave home; the coming years will be about departures of a different sort, as our world grows older and a little darker.

Of course, a similar process is happening on a far grander stage. Dennis Overbye of The New York Times reports that the stars are dying out and not being replaced as quickly as when the universe was in its younger days. “The universe has already made 95 percent of the star mass that it will ever make. As eternity goes on — and on and on — the cosmos, like Palm Springs, will be dominated by older and older stars,” he writes.

He adds: “Eventually the universe will be expanding so fast that most other galaxies will disappear from view forever.”

So we face a darker future in which we must rage against the dying of the light. But why rage? Even as we age along with the universe there is hope and even exuberance to be found. The other night I wished my mother a happy 79th birthday and we shared our satisfaction at the re-election of President Barack Obama. She’s a lifelong soldier for Democratic causes and as she enters her 80th year is as passionate about the good fight as ever.

And just as we have markers and milestones as children, so too do we have them as a species. That in a country where we once enslaved Africans we twice could elect an African-American man president shows we are maturing as a people. Around the world, democratic freedoms are slowly taking root in regions long hostile to such concepts. Yes, there are setbacks, but the long arc of history seems to point toward progress. Humanity is growing. The future seems bright.

In my son there is plenty of excitement about the future, about his future. He’s come of age during the digital revolution and so plans to study computer engineering. I’m not really sure what that entails but I try to imagine what he will be doing in, say, 30 or 40 years, how his world will change and be changed in ways that I can’t begin to imagine. That will be his world, not mine.

What I do know is this: my son has brown eyes and brown hair and, as I am forever telling people, lucked out in the genetic crapshoot of life by inheriting his looks and brains from his mom. He has a tendency toward shyness and solitude, loves soccer and “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins and is forever giving away what spare pocket change he has to charities on the street. He has the best heart of anyone I’ve ever known.

All this and more is why I try not to dwell on that day in late August when we will send him off on his own.

For now, there’s still time to listen to him play piano, to try to beat him at a game of chess, or to stand with him under a night sky and see the young stars burn brightly as their elders, slowly but inexorably, flicker and fade.

-Tony Rogers

This story originally appeared in the Bucks County Courier-Times