Just a few hours ago my husband and I dropped off our 18 year old son–his biological son, my stepson, if you want to get technical—at an unremarkable Marriott Hotel that marks the beginning of his service in the US Army. It was neither the beginning nor the end of the emotional journey we are travelling as parents, but it is certainly a major milestone.
We have been in the process of preparing--mentally, emotionally, physically--for this day since late December, when Alex informed us (quite out of the blue, as it happened) that he had decided to join the Army right out of high school. At first my thoughts were on concrete things; his safety of course, the military culture and how he will respond, the fact that this is a kid who has never been to camp, never been on an airplane, never been away from his family for any length of time. Even now, the people I talk to inevitably focus on these issues. As the time grows closer, though, I feel those are things that will work themselves out. The overwhelming sense I have now is much simpler; I feel sad because he is leaving, and I will miss him. As a teenager he has of course increasingly had his own life--between school, sports, and working at the pizza place we rarely saw him the past year—now, however, his absence is palpable thing. The quiet seems to echo through the halls where we are accustomed to the booming of an Xbox from behind a closed bedroom door, and the lack of Gatorade in the refrigerator, or the fact that there is no longer the tripping hazard of giant tennis shoes near the garage door.
I knew I wanted to write further about this experience of having a child go into the military, of the mixed feelings it evokes and the reactions of our extended families. I still may write that, one day, but today I’m more interested in telling a personal story. It’s second hand, perhaps it’s not even my story to tell, but for me it was a ray of sunshine, and that’s where I wanted to focus.
Here’s a cliché for you; we can only imagine what each day holds in store. We try to plan and manage every contingency, but of course that only goes so far, which is why Life is an adventure every day. We know this, but on a day when even small things are magnified in importance, a comedy of errors turns an already memorable day into one for the ages.
For Alex’s last day as a civilian he and his dad planned a day of fishing. The peaceful lake, the lapping of waves on the side of the boat, the quiet bonding between father and son was the ideal choice for their final day together. It should have been very A River Runs Through It, and it was! Except, maybe, starring Jim Carrey. The highlights? First, it rained. Not a gentle, cooling sprinkle, but RAIN, hard sheets of it, propelled by gusting winds. In their hurry to get out of the downpour, they dumped the tacklebox. Wet, harried, nearly ready to give up, they were given a reprieve when the sun came back out. Even better, the fishing was spectacular, and Dad, in a flush of good fortune, caught a huge fish, the biggest walleye he’d ever caught in four decades of fishing. In fact, in you ever meet my husband, ask him about this fish. He just might have a picture of it on his phone.
Oh, about that picture. In the flush of excitement, they took the photo before even removing the hook from the fish’s mouth. Being a feisty sort, the fish flopped just enough—to get the hook caught in Alex’s ankle. Hours from deployment, and they are rushing to the clinic to push a barbed fish hook out of his foot. The fact that the young doctor had never removed a fish hook before was kind of the final coda, but this fish story, besides being true, did have a happy ending. At the appointed time (maybe just slightly late) the young man was there, with just a small puncture wound and some antibiotics to betray his misadventures. He may not agree, especially after the painkillers wore off, but for him and his dad a crazy day of ups and downs was just what they needed. There was no time to be sad, not until those last few minutes, back in the anonymous suburban hotel parking lot.
He said goodbye outside. He didn’t want us to come into the hotel with him. I hadn’t yet met Alex on his first day of kindergarten, but I’m guessing it went kind of the same way. The rain had started up again. I took a picture of Alex and his dad, arms entwined. Later I would explain to people that some of the rain had fallen on his dad’s face.
Afterwards, what do you do? We got coffee and picked up some Chinese food. As I fastened my seat belt, my husband, who has a poetic bent, said, “I lost a boy today, but I’m gaining a man.”
I don’t know how long he rehearsed that line in his head, but I know he meant it with all his heart.