The Nest-Flown Knucklehead

It’s what I’ve been dreading almost since My Knucklehead was born. It’s the nagging thought I’ve less and less successfully push away from the forebrain as my child has grown up and hurdled one milestone after another. I think it’s harder for us dads, because it’s generally not as acceptable for us to talk about, especially when it comes to our sons. Maybe it’s even harder because The Knucklehead is my only knucklehead; I don’t know, I can only speculate about that.

Technically, of course, it’s I who have flown the nest – I left for the west coast just this past spring while my boy was still in his junior year of college in central Pennsylvania. The timing of events nudged me a year before he would have sprung himself, but that hardly seems to have mattered. My son, somewhere along the collegiate path has seemed to have turned his attention away from the acorn of family to the oak of the outside world. I first noticed it just after his homecoming from a semester abroad. Like Odysseus returned, he seemed to keep an eye to the sea. Like Telemachus, I wasn’t fooled.

No matter which of us left first, I knew that my days of having The Knucklehead at hand were winding down. Whether it happened last April or next, it was inevitable. And as I sit here in early October, baseball waning, winter on the rise, 3,000 miles away from the boy I love best as he plans a life apart, one question keeps nagging and turning and tugging:

Why don’t I feel worse than I do?

* * *

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not above the occasional self-pity party now and then. I still think of my last live sight of him. We’d had dinner out together before my drive west, and I’d hugged him goodbye outside his dorm. As he walked back inside, I watched him all they way in, thinking desperately, don’t look back-NO, PLEASE, TURN AROUND-no don’t I’ll never keep it together-HOW CAN YOU LET ME GO?! I knew that I wouldn’t see him again until after the new year. He was going back abroad for an internship that summer (see, I was right about the Odysseus analogy), and we’d agreed he’d fly out for the January portion of his winter break. Eight months. By far, it would be the longest span of his life we’d spent apart from each other.

Am I a little jealous of his mom, and her large extended family just a short drive away from campus in my old home town? Sure. Right now The Knucklehead is there for a fall break, and for the most part that side of his family gets him all to themselves for the rest of his undergrad term. More than that, if he stays in the Northeast. But if that worried me, I never would have left. He loves his mom’s side of the family, and he loves me. If anybody in the Keystone State wants to turn that into a competition, they’re welcome to see where that gets them.

No, it’s actually the baseball playoffs that I thought would jerk the tears. This is always the time of year when my boy and I had our favorite discussions about the sport, one of the backbones of our relationship. So when Knucks and I talk baseball, there’s a wealth of memory behind it. Take this recent (edited) text exchange between us on this year’s playoffs:

KNUCKLEHEAD: Who are you pulling for: Blue Jays or Rangers?

ME: Blue Jays. Easy.

KH: Easy? What’d the Rangers ever do to you?

ME: I’d rather live in Toronto than Arlington. Bush was an owner. My friend Amit is from Toronto.

KH: That is all true but the Rangers have a much better stadium, they don’t have Bautista, and they didn’t boo Showalter. Besides, I like seeing people touch Beltre’s head.

That exchange taps on a motherlode of history between the two of us. One of our favorite discussions was “Who Are You Rooting For?” in which geography, ethics, politics, loyalty to friends, and many other factors were weighed. The discussions were always long and encyclopedic, and sometimes would still be going on after a game was over. And the Beltre reference is pure gold:

For those who don’t know, my son and I are both Boston Red Sox fans, and during the 2010 season (Knucks would have been 15 that year) Adrian Beltre played for Boston. Since we watched a lot of Sox games, we noticed something: Adrian Beltre does not like people touching his hair. How did we know this? Because Adrian Beltre positively flips out when anyone touches his hair. The man seriously flies into a rage. So his teammates, being the paragons of maturity we know all baseball players to be, would make a point of tousling Beltre’s hair whenever possible, and the NESN cameras were always on the lookout for it because it was so damned entertaining. I mean, yes, it was wrong of Beltre’s teammates to violate his personal boundaries, and that was so noted by both father and son. But, honestly, most of us learn sometime before the third grade that if something weirds you out, you downplay it. The last thing you do is provide spectacular entertainment to your tormentors. After the 2010 season, Beltre went to Texas, and he plays for them to this day. So in the years since he left Boston, whenever one of us sees the Rangers playing, the other always gets called into the room in case Adrian loses it in the dugout. It’s become a family tradition.

* * *

So, watching a baseball game with my son is never just watching a sporting event. It connects us to hundreds of moments, conversations, places, and people in our lives. Baseball is a touchstone in our relationship, as are films, music, and books. All these things lead to more important parts of our lives, but all these things are the packaging as well. I can’t watch baseball without thinking of my son.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of the last World Series game my son and I watched together. I was still in Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from his university. I made a point of allowing him his distance, and freedom, but I wasn’t ready to give up watching a World Series game with him. We picked a night he was free and went to a sports bar near campus to have dinner and enjoy the game. We weren’t glued to every pitch – we never are when we watch a game together. Knucks had brought some homework, and knowing this, I kept myself busy with a crossword puzzle I’d brought. This is how we watch most games together. A lot of it passes in silence. When one of us comments, it’s usually to recall a player or situation we’ve seen together before. At moments when the game demands our concentration, we’ll drop what we’re doing and play barstool manager. We cheer, we groan. We tap into our whole past.

All that happened that night, and it didn’t matter that we were in a public house and not on our couch. We had a great evening, and as I drove home I felt like that one game together was all we needed. I didn’t have to take in every game of that series with my boy. He had given me one evening out of his college week, and I was grateful to be close enough to take it. One more game with my son.

This year, I’ll have none. Sure, we’ll text, but he won’t be in the room. No laughing at each others’ reactions. No sharing greasy food. No antics with the dog when he jumps up as we stand to cheer. So, again:

Why don’t I feel worse?

* * *

I think the answer is because we left nothing on the field. When we had the opportunity to spend time together, we didn’t squander it. We took advantage of the times we were geographically close, and though I didn’t know it at the time, we were banking it for the future. If I hadn’t taken the time to grab a game with my kid when I was close, I’m sure I’d feel regret. I’d kick myself for having missed an opportunity that’s no longer available to me. But because I grabbed key moments when I was able, I’m filled not with sadness that those moments are in the past, but with gratitude that they were there at all.

I remember times when The Knucklehead was a toddler of two or three, and the sight of me after a long day of work would fill him with sheer glee. I remember him running to me, I remember the feel of his little arms around my neck and his soft baby cheek against mine. And I think I remember those moments so clearly because all I could think of at the time was, “This is it. This is life. This is everything.” And when you feel something like that, it becomes part of you forever. It’s always there. You can’t lose it.

I don’t regret that those moments are in the past. I’m grateful to have appreciated them as they happened. I’m not sad because I won’t have my son with me on the couch for October baseball this year because I was fully present when I had the opportunity, and I know I will be when we’re together again.

I’m at the beginning of my “empty nesting” stage, so I can’t know how I’ll feel five, ten, twenty years from now. My Knucklehead hasn’t yet put down roots anywhere, so the permanence of this stage hasn’t settled in yet. But I’m cheered by how I’m feeling now, and a little bit surprised. I wasn’t aware of how nourishing those memories could be, and it gives me great hope for continuing to teach my son his father’s place in his life.

This relationship, this bond my boy and I have built together; it turns out it’s pretty strong. I had no idea how much comfort it would provide. Since we built it together, I know it reaches out to my son as it reaches back to me. If I left nothing on the field, neither did he, and maybe the same memories that warm me will warm him as well. If I feel like I’m going to be okay, it’s reasonable to expect that The Knucklehead, no matter how far afield he roams, will be okay, too. If our moments together fill me with love instead of longing, perhaps they’ll sustain him, too, instead of holding him back.

My boy will soon head out into the wide wild world, and neither of us knows where he’ll land or for how long. Could be that it’s a long, long time until we get to watch October baseball together again.

Why don’t I feel worse?

I have no reason to.

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