Originally published in The News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington
Nothing prepares you for parenthood. Not a book, nor advice from friends or family. You walk in blind and have to build your own eyes. And years later, after you’ve rubbed out the dust to look across that empty nest, you realize you’ve learned more than you taught.
My wife and I met long after the crash of each of our broken marriages had quieted. Over time, we discovered that the pieces we were left to hold fit together perfectly. Hand in hand, we re-fired the kiln and crafted a union stronger than the ones before.
Into this mix we added our children, my two sons and my wife’s three daughters. When we first met their ages ranged from nine to 18 years. Today, my youngest son is 24 and my oldest daughter is … well you can do the math. All told, it was my opportunity to watch as they matured into the outstanding individuals they are today.
From birth, we lose something of our children with each passing moment. From newborn, to infant, to toddler, through adolescence, the baby we bring into the world all too suddenly folds into itself and the metamorphosis begins anew. Just as you manage to build the skill set needed to attend to their immediate needs, out springs something all together unexpected. As a parent you spend a great deal of time at square one.
You try to set a course for your child with the best of intentions. There are choices you make together, or separately. Conversely, if one hesitates, choices will be made for you.
To your horror, you discover that the majority of your child’s life is wildly beyond your control. Friends, peers, temptations, and a million mash-ups you can hardly comprehend, whisper in their ears whether you are in the room or not. You find yourself down roads impossible to retrace, too late to reprieve. Most times you simply have to lower your head and move forward because there’s still a drawer full of forks ahead.
Blessings, as well as misfortunes, exert authority across the full measure of their travels. For our children, as well as ourselves, the destination charted is not necessarily the point where we arrive. One of life’s endearing charms is the damn journey always manages to get in the way; tempting us to whereabouts we could hardly imagine the day we set off.
As I pile up the decades I stand a little higher on a hill of my own making. From this vantage, patterns begin to emerge. You become familiar with the topography. Currents, eddies and backwaters are easier to recognize above the tumult of day-to-day life.
Watching the journey play out over five young lives carries with it an unexpected blessing. It has allowed me the grace to forgive myself parts of my own travels. This is what happens, you tell yourself; it is wholly yours but not entirely of your own creation.
The classic conundrum of parenthood is that it is interminably long, and yet at the end is over in an instant. To my everlasting pride all of our children have found their own way. Moving through life, each in turn has discovered a unique space that fits their form. To be sure, there were missteps aplenty, but also moments of grace that I will carry with me forever.
In the end, you drop your child into the boat you’ve built together. When it’s time, you offer a blessing and send them out into open waters. If you’re lucky they hug the shore for a time. You shout encouragement — do this, do that. You wring your hands and jump for joy. Finally, with the snap of the sails and a push of the tiller, they catch the prevailing wind and slowly drift from your sight.
But never your heart.