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Philz Blog

My son is leaving home

August 2, 2015

It’s a lesson too late for the learnin’

made of sand, made of sand

Tom Paxton

Each time I listen to Doc Watson’s arrangement of this sad song, my belly fills with that sick feeling of regret for the many lessons too late for learning and certainly too late to use. At the top of a lengthy list is a span of time in my twenties and thirties when I treated my parents with terrible neglect and often outright hostility. It took me a long, long time but at least it wasn’t too late when I figured out how to love them in time to enjoy many years together and take care of them at the end of their lives.

Perhaps nothing humbles a person quite like parenting because more often than not, the lessons learned are after the fact and quickly out of date. I was forty-seven when I became a father, rather late in the game by most standards. Many of my friends from high school are retired by now and grandparents, while I am facing that painful day that comes to most parents: my son is leaving home.

What is surprising is that this could come as such a shock. That despite having lived through countless losses in the past decade the reality that Joey will be leaving for college in a few weeks hits me on certain days like the proverbial 2×4 out of nowhere. How can it be? Wait a minute, this must be a terrible mistake; as the song continues, “In the wink of an eye my soul is turnin’.” I must confess that at times I can be heard singing along with Doc Watson, “Please don’t go, please don’t go.”

All the memories. Falling asleep with him on my chest. Crawling on the floor with Joey into his mother’s office to surprise her. Waking every morning and heading to the rocker with a the tippy cup full of orange, peach, mango juice and a good book: Red Fish Blue Fish and Where the Wild Things Are, the weight of his twelve month old body on my lap. And now, wondering how I will manage without the sound of his footstep descending the stairs in the morning.

Of course no sooner does grief show up than the endless list of second guessing begins: “the lessons too late for the learnin’.” I didn’t teach him enough about the world. I didn’t take him to enough places. I didn’t play and wrestle with him enough. On and on. It may be that in parenting, more than any other endeavor, we are hunted and haunted by the hounds of certain ideals of how it should be and that all too painful refrain: “I could have loved you better.”

What is a little crazy about all this is that Joey is so ready to go. That in itself is embarrassing to admit: how can he be OK without me? But he is. He is standing in his big self with an eye on what he wants. He is more disciplined than I was at thirty. I am so proud and amazed remembering how unprepared I was. He is ready and focused; I am resisting and feel somewhere deep inside, lost. He is full of energy and determination; I feel weakened in late middle age and can see old age in the rear view mirror gaining on me. He is fine. I will be too. One of these days.

But still I fret. My friend Howard used to tell me that he still had sleepless nights when his kids were in their late thirties! It seems these anxieties are the adult version of children’s night terrors. Mine usually arrive at 3 am. What do I need to teach him before he goes? Will he end up in some flee bag apartment? Remember to write compact sentences. What about how to be with a girl? I haven’t said enough about that. About falling in love.

What are the lessons to learn? How do I learn lessons when it seems like my whole self is cracking open? Where is the god damn light? Why is it so hard to stand in both the pain and the joy? Why haven’t I learned by now, after sixty-six years to rock and roll with the whole wild roller coaster of this life?

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I know too many people who have been clobbered by life and the longing for healthy children. Too many who weren’t able to conceive and suffered trying till they were utterly exhausted. Too many who had children with disabilities too big to overcome and will never be able to leave home. Too many who lost children and will never fully recover their own lives from the hell of that tragedy. Their pain is daily and difficult to comprehend.

And yet each person’s suffering is real and legitimate even if it does not compare to the worst of life’s cruel dealings. My cards have been good and playable, and still this leaving, this goodbye, this, it will never be the same is tough and fills me with heartache: the fifth chamber of every parent’s heart.

So what are the lessons, Doc? What is the takeaway? What is obvious, and gets more and more so with age, is that time is fleeting. Utterly transient. A more uplifting way of saying this is that everything is in transformation, constantly changing into new forms. Bill Bryson, author of the incredible, A Short History of Nearly Everything, tells us that many of the atoms of your body and mine contain atoms that once made the body of Beethoven, for example. I guess that makes us all related and immortal in an intriguing but unsatisfying way.

Here’s a list of some of the lesson’s this culture and my brain have been writing on the chalk board:

Quit whining you big baby

Live in the moment

Life sucks and then you die

Relax, he’ll be home again soon

Be grateful for what you have

Many have it worse

Accept that you did your best

Have faith

There is no avoiding suffering

Look at the donut, not the hole

Get a life

Get over yourself

Get on with your life

Enjoy every precious moment

You could probably help me and add more to this list. The funny thing is that every one of these “lessons” thoughtfully provided by my brain and our not so compassionate culture, might be of support in a given moment. The not so funny thing is that none of them really help one damn bit. As life accelerates it seems we’re on to the next impossible situation before the experience can be absorbed much less a lesson learned. You end up feeling like a child chasing bubbles.

Maybe the lesson is to give up on learnin’, but I’m afraid our big brains aren’t capable of that, and it seems an awfully negative note to end on. Perhaps there is a transitional space approach, as Winnicott suggested, where we practice giving over the command to have it all together, to be in control, to be perfect without regret. Maybe we laugh at notions of mastery and excellence when it comes to parenting, and go our merry way enjoying our kids and not trying so hard to get it right.

At any rate, it seems the craziest of lessons is to keep loving. To love till you break. Don’t stop. No matter what. My friend Ross, the most positive guy on the planet, gave me this piece of advice for the day I say goodbye to Joey at college: “Phil, take a big box of kleenex with you.” Love till it hurts, or till it fills all the holes with love.

A few years ago I took my youngest son and a friend to an amusement park to satisfy their quest to find the best, and scariest roller coaster in life. This park had an old, rickety wooden structure with a tunnel at the bottom of one of the drops. I was sure I would be decapitated when I made the screaming decent. My back hurt so much after the ride I could barely walk, but I still had my head.

I guess that is a pretty good approximation of my fear going into this passage with Joey. I trust I’ll come out of this with my head and my heart. And my son. I’m looking forward to more time to write, more time with Lori and especially, more time with our youngest, Georgio, to enjoy the two years we have together before he goes his way.

I’d like to leave you with a little poem I wrote when Joey was 6. Thanks for reading.

Namaste,

Phil

Somehow

(For Joey)

We are standing on the corner

waiting for the light to change.

Somehow, between the raindrops,

he is six.

The days he will stand here

and hold my hand

are already numbered.

In the background I hear his fingers

flying across the keyboard —

happy dancers!

Fast cars and loud trucks

speed by,

some splash water from the puddles

our way.

He takes my hand surely,

effortlessly caressing my happy heart.

I must feel his tender grip,

the way each finger whispers,

“daddy…”

his bright eyes

roam the streets

for things that interest him.

The rain keeps falling.

We are standing on the corner

waiting for the light to change.

We won’t be here long.  

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