South Bend, Indiana to Albert Lea, Minnesota. 490.6 miles. 9 hours 5 minutes on the road. 122 songs.
The Knucklehead is currently serving out the spring semester of his junior year at university. His school is not terribly far from home, so I was glad when he took an opportunity to spend last semester in Spain. The opportunities for growth in the right program abroad are priceless, especially for a young man who has never been all that far from home on his own. And The Knucklehead’s experience in Granada was a resounding success.
I learned I’m not nearly as slick a dad as I thought I was.
* * *
Oh, I talk a good game. I told everybody what a great learning experience this would be for The Knucklehead. I told people he was going to have the chance to prove to himself that he could be independent. That I hoped he was going to have some kind of adventure where he got himself into a little trouble and had to turn to himself for the resources to get himself out (This actually happened. Knucks decided he was going to spend a long weekend in London by himself, only to find the wrong flight had been booked when he got to Heathrow for his return. He had to bootleg an alternate route back to Granada on his own on the fly. Did it, too.). I was so pleased with myself that the wise father was giving his blessing to his only child’s trip abroad, all in the name of maturation. “Aren’t you worried?” people asked me. “Oh, it’ll be an adjustment,” I replied, “but he’ll be OK.”
It was an adjustment alright. But not for The Knucklehead; he did fine. It was me that needed to grow up.
* * *
Here’s what I was worried about while My Knucklehead was abroad, and this is nothing I’m proud of: I was afraid that he would find he had no use left for me as a father. And as stupid as that must sound, it was my worst fear. While he was relatively close, I could still check in, tell myself that he slept at night because he knew his dad was a phone call away. There was nothing in my experience to tell me that I had anything left of value to offer to a young adult. Sound crazy? My son was going to Europe: I’ve never been. He was brushing up on his Spanish, as he would be living with a host family: I speak no languages other than English. I had nothing from my personal experience I could offer him. I felt like a dim, hovering, middle-aged white guy, fumbling for relevance to the person he loves best.
And it was precisely during this time that I was wrestling with the changing relationship with the woman I loved best. My own little Perfect Storm of insecurity.
And I watched from afar, through Facebook and Google chats, as my son handled it all, and beautifully. He was independent. He was courteous. He was adventurous. All without my help or guidance. It’s true that some of that echoed my parenting, but there was nothing new he needed me for. All that was in the past. What was left for me now?
But when The Knucklehead came back, flush with the success of his independence, nothing between us had changed. He still wanted to go to the movies with me. He still wanted to talk baseball and pop culture and politics with me. He still scooted over on the couch when he had Champions League soccer on TV, so he could offer me tutorials.
He still liked having me around. Even if he didn’t “need” me. And as dumb as this sounds, I found myself grateful for the reassurance that he still loved me. I think I was actually a little bit worried that wouldn’t be the case.
It was then that I knew I could move to Olympia. Spain proved to me that it’s not that I had nothing to offer my son, but that what I had to offer could reach across oceans. When he came back from being away for four months, we weren’t sad we’d been separated. We were happy to see each other again.
I told him what had been going on with My Bride and me. I told him that I wanted to move to Washington, to a place I felt I could finally be at home. Though I didn’t say it, we both knew I was asking for his blessing. And he gave it to me. He smiled and said, “I’m proud of you.”
And I knew that was a gift I could give my son. He’s always been worried about me; now he’d worry a little less knowing I’m finally in a place I want to be. That’s something I want for my boy as well. How could I look him in the eye and tell him he has to be responsible for his own happiness if I’m too intimidated to do the same thing? If I want him to be fearless, I’ve got to lead by example or the lesson means nothing. That’s a gift a father can still give his son.
Or is the push to do what’s right the gift he’s giving me? I’m not sure I would have had the guts to do this if I wasn’t more afraid of being a hypocrite to my son than afraid of picking up and moving across country alone.
I’m not sure. It makes my head hurt. Maybe I’ll leave it at what I wrote him in my last Pennsylvania-postmarked letter to him: “I’m not doing this because I love Olympia more than I love you. I’m doing this because staying here doesn’t do either of us any good.”
* * *
Of course, a year from now, The Knucklehead could be anywhere. As we were making our baseball trips while he was growing up, we always talked about what it might be like to live where we were visiting. After Spain, Knucks could expand his search to anywhere in the world, much less the US. But he loves the Pacific Northwest, too, and now he knows he’s got a place there he can call home whenever he needs to.
In March I spent a week in the Olympia/Tacoma area, hoping that the job interviews and realtor visits I’d lined up might miraculously coalesce to a realistic move. My realtor – a family-centered home-brewer named Kelly – tipped me off to The Three Magnets, a splendid brewpub with a 90-inch television eternally tuned to soccer. I took some pictures in the place and texted them to The Knucklehead:
I might as well tell you right now that I’m going to pull every cheap trick and low blow I can to get you out here. This is a soccer bar. They have a 90″ TV. They have been known to open at 7:00 AM for international games.
“Fair enough,” was The Knucklehead’s response.
My boy will follow up college with a job or a road trip or a graduate school wherever he needs to be. I have no doubt of that. He proved to me that we both have the independence to handle that. And, I’m looking forward to seeing him whenever I can (I’m flying him out over his winter break for New Year’s). I know that when I see him, we will not mourn the time apart. We will make the most of our time together in my new home, whether that’s exploring Olympia or with our asses planted on my couch. We will be happy to see each other. When he leaves, it will be with the knowledge that we are each in place that nourish us, and that will make us happy for each other. And we will look forward to the next great time together.
Spain taught me that. My son taught me that.
And he says he’s proud of me.