The last thing he said before he boarded the plane was: “I love you dad.” With that No 1 son walked towards immigration and one chapter of my life closed.
Last Sunday Stephen left for Melbourne to finish his final year of university. (He had done two years at a local branch.)
No. I didn’t cry but my heart had been feeling the seismic nature of this change for some weeks now. Many remind me that he will be back within the year. But when I meet him again it will be the beginnings of the next chapter of our relationship. I am saying goodbye to this chapter.
It was a chapter that began with the death of his mother. Stephen was in primary one and that year ended with him topping his class. On prize giving day I remember thinking how I wish his mother was there to see her boy getting his prize. It was also the first clue that life from then on was going to be some potent mix of tears and joy.
I really do not know how we all survived the last thirteen years. Actually I do — the grace of God and the help of friends. And yet I don’t. Parenting doesn’t come naturally to me. Single parenting scared me shitless. Single parenting while going through remarriage, a bad marriage, divorce and clinical depression made leaping over tall buildings with a single bound look simple.
So the last couple of weeks have been flash back time. So many scenes from so many years. Often I am overwhelmed. For so long it has just been the three of us, Stephen, Andrew (no 2 son) and myself. I have tried to be there for them. But they were there for me too.
In the long dark days I remember that family, the three us, was a haven of laughter and companionship. Many had kept their distance because of all I had gone though. But the guys were always there. We were family. So many precious memories. So many things to say good-bye to. So many things to thank God for.
“I love you dad.” I guess Stephen has forgiven me for all the times I had failed him as a dad. In his book Courage and Calling, Gordon T. Smith reminds us that one of the life tasks we all need to do is to forgive our parents. To grow up is to discover that our parents are not perfect. To grow up is to understand that even the best parents fail us at times. To grow up is to learn that we must forgive them. I know I have much that needs forgiving.
In his younger days, Stephen was a tough child. I remember his mum and I reading all the books on “tough love” we could get our hands on. I had a much fiery temper then and employed corporal punishment. I look back on some of those days with shame. Mercifully Stephen doesn’t remember much of those days. He is often perplexed as to why his behaviour was so bad then. We have all come a long way.
Along the way I decided that I had to become the father the boys needed. After the divorce we were alone again. There was no mum for the boys to go to. There was just me. I decided to leap over tall buildings with a single bound. I decided to try my best to be the father the boys needed.
I am sorry guys. You deserved much better. But I did what I could. I learnt to listen. I learnt that corporal punishment was non-productive. I tried to be there for you, to be guide and cheerleader and coach. Spending time with you became a priority. I tried. You deserved much better. But I did what I could.
Along the way I realized that I had to help you become what God wanted you to be not what I wanted you to be. Along the way I realized that as a father my most important job was helping you to know your heavenly Father.
I am glad that the reality of God is evident in your lives. Indeed you have things to teach me. Stephen sought out his non-Christian friends in the weeks before he left to share the gospel with them. I could do with more such evangelistic fervor.
Am I romanticizing my relationships with my boys in my present maudlin mood? Perhaps. I am fully aware that the guys still have serious rough edges to work on. So have I. But the time has come to release no 1 son, to allow him to take over more responsibility for his own growth. Hence I know he has to go away. Physical distance is very helpful for the journey of individuation.
But as dads before me have realized, our children will always be our children and we will always love them. Even when they become adults and become our peers.
So goodbye Stephen. Dad loves you too. I think you know that. Have a great year in Melbourne.
My mum told me that when I first went away to university my dad missed me so much that he would play my Jimi Hendrix records everyday. He was no rock fan. But the music reminded him of me. I think I am going out to get some Snow Patrol.