Paul Andersen: Fair Game
Saying goodbye after 18 years was easier than I thought. We shook hands, then crushed each other with a bear hug. We looked each other in the eyes – “Take care.” From the car, his mom and I waved a last farewell. He beamed a big smile, and his mom let out a sob, tears welling. That’s the last time we’ll see Tait until Christmas.
Lu and I spent the 10-hour car ride home reflecting on what it means to leave our son and only child for his freshman year at Prescott College in Arizona. For me, it conjures equal amounts of envy and loss. Envy for the beginnings of independent living for a healthy, active, 18-year-old mountain boy. Loss for the absence of the boy we raised and for everything he has brought to our family.
Because Prescott College has limited campus housing, we rented a two-bedroom house that’s more like a quaint little cottage. The neighborhood is quiet and just a five-minute bike ride to school. Wild javelinas occasionally tip over the trash cans, but it feels safe and secure. There are caring neighbors, and the landlords are like Fred and Ethel Mertz.
Tait is rooming with Cooper Means. They’ve been friends since they were babies and share a long history of adventures in the mountains and deserts. They also share a passion for brewing beer, which ought to make them among the most popular students at Prescott, as long as they’re discreet.
We were at the rental house for less than an hour before a handful of neighbors introduced themselves – and their agendas. No late-night ragers in this neighborhood, they warmly advised. It all seems friendly and tolerant for two independent teens keeping house in a white-bread, working man’s part of town.
Saying goodbye is one thing, but now that my biological duties are fulfilled, what’s left for me? I feel like I’m slipping into a pit of lassitude as the obsolescence of fatherhood negates my primary purpose: the raising of a child.
“This is when a lot of couples get divorced,” pointed out my wife, the psychotherapist. “They re-evaluate their marriage and no longer have their children to hold it together. Fortunately,” she smiled, “that’s not our plan … is it?”
Just the opposite, I assured her. Here is our opportunity to revisit our lives together, assuming we can remember what that was like 18 years ago. Perhaps we can just reinvent ourselves as empty nesters. Me Tarzan. You Jane. It might be as simple as that.
One sanguine friend who has sent three kids off to college quipped that our primary parenting role will now be “regurgitating money via electronic transfers” just to keep the lad provisioned. “Your biological functions are completed,” he concluded with knowing finality.
Another friend who sent his children off more than a decade ago advised: “Don’t worry, Tait will fill your life for many years to come. Your relationship with him will mature, your roles will shift over time, but there is always that bond that you have created during his first 18 years that will never sever. You and Tait have great times ahead. And then there will be grandchildren …”
Whoa, now! Grandchildren are for the golden years, the rocking chair years, the white-haired, wizened, doddering years that are still far off on my horizon. Then again, beer-brewing college boys mixing with free-range co-eds. No, can’t happen, not for a long time. Please!
Back home, things are quieter. There are fewer dishes in the sink, less laundry, a lot less food to buy, fewer distractions. There is also a perceptible void. This fall, I’ll cut, split and stack the firewood myself. This winter, I’ll shovel the driveway myself. I’ll have to make do without my helper, the spirited boy who met all the challenges I laid out to him, who grew strong, capable and confident, who became as much a friend and confidante as a son.
This summer, every night after dinner, Tait and I developed a tradition. We would take our dog on a “constitutional,” hiking up the hill behind our house, sitting on rock benches we made in the woods and tossing rocks at a particular log, keeping score with our hits. This is when we would talk about whatever was on our minds, a nightly communion that kept us whole.
We will resume that tradition at winter break. Until then, I will practice my throw in anticipation of Tait’s return, awaiting the wholeness he will bring to us.
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