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My Son Goes Away

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My child arrived just the other day/he came to the world in the usual way/But there were planes to catch and bills to pay/ he learned to walk while I was away/And he was talkin' 'fore I knew it and as he grew/He'd say "I'm gonna be like you Dad/You know I'm gonna be like you."
"Cats in the Cradle" — Harry Chapin

Kerry stood by the window, looking outside, just hoping for a thunderstorm.

"Think we'll get lightning tonight, Dad?" he asked me.

I was knee deep in something — homework, work, trying to figure out how to rob Peter to pay Paul — something, anywhere but on lightning storms.

My mind did a quick shift: "Well, the weather forecast is calling for the possibility of storms, so there's definitely a chance," my overly Spock-like response came back.

"I sure hope we do," he said as he stood there in nothing but his boxer shorts. It was getting on his bedtime and somewhere along the way, he'd abandoned the idea of pajamas in favor of nothing but his skivvies as bedtime attire.

Leaning over from my desk-chair, I put my chin on his shoulder and peered out into the night sky with him. The dark night betrayed nothing of the clouds that may have been lurking unseen by our upward-looking eyes. Kerry turned his head ever so slightly.

"I know, Dad," he almost whispered into my ear, "let's check the Weather Channel and see if anything is coming."

We popped over to my computer and did a quick jump from my online class to the Weather Channel's maps.

"Look at all that by Cheyenne," my son said, a tone of wonderment befitting an eight-year-old punctuating his voice.

"Which direction is it heading?" I somewhat rhetorically asked him. I knew, but I didn't want our conversation to end.

We sat and discussed the direction of the storm — was it going to hit the town west of ours or was it going to make a beeline for us? A few minutes more of talk about the impending storm and Kerry returned to the window, both his hands on the glass, framing his head, the rim of his glasses and his nose the only distance between his face and the cold window. I studied the weather map a little longer.

"Dad," Kerry said.

"Yeah, bub," I called back to him.

Writers, it's almost always about writers — I started calling Kerry "bub" a long time ago, because that's what one of my favorite writers, Hunter S. Thompson, called everyone — bub. And Kerry, that"s short for Kerouac, my favorite writer of all time.

"I'm gonna miss you," he said.

"I'm gonna miss you too," I said back to him as I raised my arms and did a "come here" motion my son long ago learned meant to get over here and give his old man a hug. I held him, that tiny body shaking with equal parts night-chill and lust of the world. Just under 24 hours from that moment I was going to take this wonderful piece of my life, drive him to Denver, put him on a plane, and send him to his mother, my wife, separated from me due to the wind-shifting vagaries of the current economics of the world, in San Diego. When I would see him again: a long time from now, longer than is reasonable or right but no matter, it's what the heavens have deemed necessary at this moment.

"Out-of-state Utah!" I yelled out as little man and I made our way to Denver and the waiting United Airlines flight that would take him to the other side of this country.

"No fair, Dad, you always see them before I do," came the disgruntled reply of my co-pilot.

"I've got my eyes on the road and paying attention," I smartly replied.

"Not fair!" Kerry said as he folded his arms underneath themselves and assumed a most grievously slighted stance.

"Oh come on now," I said back to his defensive position.

"You get them all! I never get one," he replied, his injured ego rearing its monstrous head.

"Dude, it's no big deal," I said trying to appease the demon of adolescence.

The demon of the child — quickly angered, quickly tamed.

"Slug-bug yellow!," he triumphantly screamed as he delivered a shot to my arm.

"Nice one," I replied.

"I like this song," he said as Skinny Puppy filled the open space not more than 30 seconds later. His mood shifted as the lyrics to "Tin Omen" filled the car and we both assumed our machine-gun positions and ratta-tat-tatted along with the song when the drum beat goes crazy for nearly 20 seconds deep into the track.

We talked aimlessly for the rest of the trip — what he was going to do when he got to San Diego, what he was most excited about, what he most loved about big city living, and whether or not the spider on his phone charger was poisonous or not.

"I'm telling you dad, it could have killed me," he said.

There's no such thing as melodrama in the mind of child; everything is life or death, everything is to the extreme.

"You know, just one bite from that spider and I would have been gone, that spider was a jumper and poisonous. I'm sure, I saw those spiders on Discovery channel — but I was able to use that piece of paper and get him outside," he said, his pride in the accomplishment brimming over. We have a pretty strict "no-kill" policy in the house — rattlesnakes are of course excluded from the list, but even ants and spiders get the courtesy of a free ride to the porch.

"You all ready to go?" the middle-aged, slightly balding man working for United Airlines said to my son, bending at the waist to meet Kerry eye to eye.

"Yep!" was all my son could muster as he jumped out of his seat, fists pumping in the air — there is no such thing as restraint in the body of an eight-year old.

In the moments between taking our seat and him boarding the plane, Kerry was detailing to me that that plane over there to my left must be old-school United because of the gray paint job and if I looked over there, straight ahead of my vantage point, I could see Southwest planes, in many different paint schemes — for reasons unknown and unstated, Kerry loves Southwest.

Of course he couldn't know it. The mind knows what the heart refuses to accept; he was killing me with his joy.

"Damn it, son, please try not to be so happy that you're leaving me," was all I kept thinking.

But of course, he was thinking of all the good times he was about to have, he was thinking of seeing his mom again—a mom not seen in two months, and seeing his grandmothers and grandfathers over the course of the summer, and seeing his so-loved Arizona cousins Michael, Jimmy, and Dylan who would join him in Texas at Grandma's. He wasn't thinking of his dad sitting in the chair next to him, Dad dying inside, and he shouldn't have been — the mind knows what the heart refuses to accept.

"We'll begin boarding in just two minutes," the flight attendant called out over the loud speaker. He set down his mike, walked over to where Kerry and I were sitting, and took him away from me. Kerry turned and looked at me just before he disappeared into the tunnel and waved good-bye.

I'm an ass — sometimes I don't know where it comes from. Why I couldn't be more like his mother and run over to him and hold him, hug him, and tell him I love him and will miss him, I'll never know.

I nodded my head, gave him a salute, a wave, and he disappeared — stoicism is wildly overrated and yet…

Later that night, Megan and I were riding home from a rodeo in the town 20 miles east of where I call home. It was a lightning storm to rival any I'd ever seen.

"I tell ya," I said to Megan as we made our way home from the rodeo. "Last time I saw something like this, it canceled a combat operation in Iraq — helicopters don't fly in this shit," I said.

Megan nodded her head in silent understanding. Megan doesn't like storms.

Kerry always said he wanted to see a storm in Wyoming as rich and powerful as the ones we used to watch in Arizona.

Maybe, just maybe, I thought to myself, the heavens are as angry and hurt as me that he's gone.

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About Mr. B

  • Very touching. I can tell you love him very much. The bad thing is that the leaving doesn’t get any easier the older they get. My son first went away at five – to visit Grandma in Minnesota. He’s now 23 and married and I still feel the same sadness when we part.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Benjamin –

    My youngest son just left home two weeks ago tonight. He’s staying with our family in the Philippines, and I miss him terribly. I taught him about my fear of the song “Cats in the Cradle” on more than one occasion – and he said, “You already told me about that, Dad.”

    We’ll see each other later this year, and I promised myself that I’ll buy him a new mitt so he and I could toss the ball around, so we can spend a day or so yakking about anything, everything, nothing at all.

    He and I both have ADD – so when we’re talking, we’re constantly ‘changing channels’, skipping from subject to subject to subject with no notice, no apparent connection to what was previously said…but the connections are obvious to the two of us, for we both know where our minds are. When we’re in a good mood (when I’m not lecturing him on this or that), our talks are like a frantic, anarchic dance, the rhythm of which is known only to the dancers…and at the end we’re both exhilarated, invigorated – my son tells me he wants to do jumping jacks or swim laps after such a talk. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I hope you have such a connection with your kids.

    It does hurt terribly to not see him every day – I’m so doggone proud of him, but I worry about him each and every day. You know how it is with young men – they’re bulletproof and immortal. My wife and I did all we can, and we’re still trying, doggone it!

    Thanks for the article, Benjamin – it helps to remember that I’m not the only dad going through this….