It’s 3:23 in the morning. My family and I are making our way home from the airport. A few short hours ago, we were all in California saying goodbye to our close relatives after an extended visit; now, we’re back in Indianapolis. A light rain, just enough to make me turn on the wipers, is falling. This trip normally takes just over a half-an-hour. Tonight, it covers eighteen years.
Three of them have passed since we’ve traveled back to my kids’ birthplace on the West Coast, although we have gone back there a number of times since we relocated to central Indiana. Some of the routines established over those visits are still the same; they stay with their cousins at my sister’s house while my wife and I stay with my parents about a mile away. On this trip, however, the cousins can now all drive. My son Jack is eighteen and a high school graduate. Michael, my sister’s oldest, just finished his first year of college. His brother Justin will be a high school senior. My youngest, Daniel, will be a junior. The years have disappeared like wind rustling leaves. And they ain’t coming back.
Now, my wife and two sons are quiet, lost in thought or fatigue. In contrast to Southern California’s jam-packed highways, we are nearly alone on our pilgrimage back to our home. My mind drifts. I glance over at the rear-view mirror. Jack is sitting in his traditional seat behind mine, just a silhouette. He starts college in little over a month. Lots of changes are coming for the both of us. Lots of changes have already occurred.
My role on vacations has diminished. No longer do I set the family agenda. My boys now inform me of their daily plans – “We’re going to the beach at eleven,” or, “We’re playing soccer tonight at seven.” My permission is not requested because it is no longer required. They drive separately from the adults to destinations, some of which are hours away. They’ve grown up and taken their place on center stage while Dad moves ever closer to the wings. I tell myself that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Even when we do all go to the beach as a group, it’s not the same. Daniel is my height now. I don’t need to hover over him anymore to make sure he’s not carried away by the ocean. We still go into the surf together as a group; but as they comment, joke and taunt with each other, I feel like I’m intruding on a private conversation. They tolerate me, mostly out of habit. I soon rejoin the rest of the adults on the sand and watch in silence.
As I drive, an image pops into my mind. It’s Jack. He’s six and wearing dark blue pajamas, the one-piece kind with attached slippers. He’s coming downstairs on Christmas morning. His expression lights up when we make eye contact. I can see the anticipation on his face. I smile inwardly because I know how much he’s going to enjoy the toys waiting for him under the tree. Especially the Legos.
My wipers need to be replaced. The streaks create halos around the streetlights and billboards. It’s strange to have the radio off. Daniel usually insists on top 40 playing at all times. Jack’s musical tastes have evolved from the Eagles to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I feel like the car is standing still while the Earth turns beneath us.
Another image of Jack. Several years have passed. He’s in his room, and I’m yelling at him about an infraction I can no longer remember. I note the fear in his eyes at my tone, my posture, my words. I am ashamed.
My exit from the freeway is approaching. I confirm it with a glance at the map on my car’s dashboard screen. Like many things in life, a GPS system will help you to get somewhere more easily; however, it’s still up to you to know where you want to go. I think of all the time I’ve spent behind the wheel with my kids in tow. More than a dozen round trips across the country. Baby carriers to booster seats to Thomas the Tank Engine videos to iPhones with earbuds. Follow the mental map from Yosemite to the Grand Canyon to Mt. Rushmore to New York City. Denver. Richmond. Charlotte. Hundreds of thousands of miles.
Another memory, out of chronological order, fills my brain. It’s the first night Jack is at home after being born. His bassinet is located in our room, next to my side of the bed. Kim and I are exhausted, but the leftover adrenaline keeps me awake. I stare at Jack’s tiny chest, watching it rise and fall as he breathes. Now that I’m actually a father, I realize I have no clue as to what I am supposed to do.
Even though there is clearly no one else out on the road tonight, I still turn on my blinker as I exit the highway. Better safe than sorry. Don’t take chances. Always be prepared. Funny, I’ve learned over the years that even if you are prepared for what’s going to happen, it doesn’t mean you’re ready for it.
The moment Jack moves out next month, my house will no longer be his home. Sure, he’ll be back for holidays and even long summer vacations; but from that instant on, he’ll only be visiting. For the first time in both our lives, he’ll have his own address and a door that I won’t have a key to. For almost two decades, I can’t think of a time when I didn’t know his whereabouts, his activities, who he was with. Soon, months of his life will pass without my knowledge, input or participation. Jack has grown up strong and intelligent. He’s no one’s fool, and he’s ready for this next step. I’m not sure I am.
I’m watching the road ahead as our street nears. The rain has stopped, but the view is still blurry. I can no longer blame the worn-out wipers. It’s simply my tears.