June 4, 2020

As the last child walks away: Clarity at the Crossroads of Life

father_son.jpgUPDATE: Denise’s post of this weekend’s events.

We’d been gone from Lexington about 5 minutes when Denise started crying. “Twenty-one years I’ve been cooking for my children. That’s a big chunk of your life.”

You have such thoughts on the day you take you son to college. You stand at the crossroads, the haze lifts, and for a moment you see the journey you are on.

We’d just driven away from the University of Kentucky, leaving our freshman son and last child there to begin a new life. I know that he was scared and anxious, but he’s like me and doesn’t emote easily, so he seems calm. The campus was teeming with students and activities all around us as we watched him walk, alone, down the lane to his dorm, carry a few things we’d bought him at Wal-Mart after going out to eat as a family.

He looked very much alone, but college was before him, and that was what we all wanted. Denise and I drove away knowing that neither one of us was particularly ready for the page before us to turn, but knowing it was turning whether we gave the nod or not.

We’d spent five hours helping him move into his dorm, an enormous undertaking at a large university, but one that distracted us and gave us little opportunity to think profound thoughts. A bottle of strawberry syrup in a suitcase came open, and that took away our attention when we could have gotten sentimental. There were paperwork issues, elevators to navigate and small talk to make with other parents and housing staff. When we completed the move-in, we rode the shuttle together back to Commonwealth Stadium and just enjoyed the air conditioned ride to the restaurant for the next half an hour.

Saying good-bye was a moment I knew would be hard, but Clay makes things like this easy. He’s been to many camps and conferences. He meets people easily and is good at staying unstressed. (Thankfully he has very little of my temperament and much of his mother’s long-suffering patience.) We checked on all the essentials, said we loved each other, hugged and went our separate ways.

Clay will be home a lot, I’m sure, but I know from my own life and my work with students that this is a crossing of the Rubicon in life. When I moved back home after a freshmen year away, nothing was the same at home. I was independent, had my own job and money, and though I paid rent and helped with housework, I was a young adult, not a child any more. It was a good time in my family, but it was a different time than those high school years.

I look forward to what he will experience and accomplish. He’s only recently began to show the academic interests that I have, and I believe he’s on the cusp of changing into a higher and more focused phase of his life as a student. He’s excited about churches and campus ministry groups, friends and coffeeshops, cigars and movies, classes and achieving a goal of teaching and writing. He’s not the kind of person who is insecure around his peers, and God made him so that people like him immediately- another trait he gets from his mother. All this bodes well for school and for his journey as a young Christian.

My emotions followed a different path. I had gone down the road of lamenting the passing of time earlier in the week. I thought of all the things I wanted to do with my children that I didn’t do, for reasons ranging from money to time to simple planning. I thought about balls not thrown, trips not taken, good days that turned out to be wasted days. I thought about how would miss his clutter, his music, our laughter-filled dinners, our shared sense of humor about so many things from Family Guy to silly rules. I wanted all of this back, to relive and redo now that I have the wisdom that comes only to the parent who has watched his last child walk away to college.

I gave those thoughts and regrets to God. Clay wrote me a note that said he had no regrets- he is a generous person, even to me. So I went into college moving day thinking about all the possibilities that were before him, and doing my best to simply trust God with the future of our family minus kids in those rooms. I gave him and UK and his ministries, churches, friends, time, talents, dreams and future to God. I don’t always understand the ways of the Lord, and Calvinists are allowed to lecture me that I haven’t perfectly submitted to God’s will in an exemplary way. Yahweh knows this about me and loves me anyway.

On the way home, however, my thoughts went to other people. To my co-workers, friends, and family.

One of my neighbors has a small son that his divorce prevents him from seeing. He prays, works and dreams for the time his son can re-enter his life. He is one of the kindest, sweetest men I know, and he is walking the line these days. But his son is not with him. In the same house he lives in, a previous staff member- a single father- lived with the son he was raising. The contrast is painful to think about. How much a man can want his son is something you can not report, but only experience. The love of God the Father for his own Son is not a random choice for a way to understand the love of God, I assure you.

Another fellow staff member has several children, but he never speaks of the oldest, his son. I do not know why. I do not know what has happened. But where there is presence and celebration with the others, for and about this son, there is silence.

A good friend has an adopted son, the youngest in his family. He left the family after more than twelve years with them, and has never returned or communicated with them at all. There are other children and grandchildren, but where this special chosen son should be, there is silence and emptiness.

Another friend has a son who has been frustrating; a brilliant young man who cannot find his place in the world. After a 31 on the ACT, he has left several colleges. He is in the military, headed for Iraq. His father writes us, and says he hopes that this experience will be the one that brings the young man to awareness of maturity.

Friends have a son who graduated from high school only by way of an alternative school. He has a part time job, trouble with the law, and an illegitimate son who is being increasingly kept from him, resulting in estrangement and fear on his part. He is still working a high school job and living a high school life. His parents have almost no occasion for joy, and many occasions for desperate worry. They have no dreams of college or church, as we do, but only hope he stays out of trouble and becomes some kind of a man.

Ministry has caused me to cross paths with many tragedies. In one, a mother called her son who lived away and told him he was a failure and piece of trash. He went to his room and committed suicide by hanging.

I work with many young men and women whose families have disowned, exiled, rejected and turned away from them. Some for reasons that are necessary, many for reasons that are less than compelling.

I weep for these children. I weep for these fathers and mothers. My son and daughter are occasions of joy. They make me proud. To see them or hear their voice is one of the great pleasures of this life. We share a common faith, a history that, though imperfect, is filled with much good. We are grateful to be a family and we will be family still, even beyond college, jobs, separations and whatever the future may hold.

After reading something I posted at the Boar’s Head Tavern, a friend wrote this to me:

Your post concerning prayers for tomorrow has helped me to get a grip. I notice far too often that I am becoming my father and that I have not been focused being the scriptural father that I need to be. I have 76 months left until [name] is 18. That means that I have squandered the last 140. After reading both your post and Denise’s recollections upon Noel’s departure, as well as the fact that [spouse] and I have been at odds for a week (over stupid and inane daily junk), I realize how deficient I have been regarding the roles of husband and father. It’s amazing to me how such little things can both drive a wedge between a husband and wife and distance a father from his children. I blame myself. …I have been exceptionally critical of any behavior [my my spouse] that reminds me of her mother. When, in retrospect, I should simply show her the love and compassion that Christ has shown me and his church. Our faith needs to become real, real for our relationship and real to our children. Thank you. Both yours and Denise’s simple reflections have reminded me of that which is paramount and that which is not. I will pray that tomorrow brings you the joy of the success that you have had as a father and as the Vicar of Christ in your own home. From my heart, God bless you all again and again.

I have never counted the months I have with my family, but reading this note reminded me that there is an enormous “now” in the Gospel. Follow Christ now, not later. Do the work of the Kingdom now, not tomorrow or next month. Part of the reason for that enormous “now” is the relationships we have with our family. They are on the timer. “Time like an ever flowing stream, bears all its sons away,” the hymn says. The months, days and weeks count down, pass and vanish. We are left with whatever we built, what love created, what forgiveness allowed.

My son is walking to his dorm and into his future, but the most important path he is walking is the way of Christ. We are all on that way, and he gathers us all into himself and loves us along the way. Such good news is a comfort at the difficult crossroads.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the essay.

    “I don’t always understand the ways of the Lord…”

    Actually, in an odd way understanding this means you are a long way toward understanding His ways, IMO.

    No easy answers…This is one of times to lean hard on all the promises of a loving God to us that find their ultimate ‘yes’ in Jesus. God be gracious to you.

    Prayer and Blessings,
    Brian

  2. Thank you for these observations. How many times do we (I) forget to look at the good in our children?

    My daughter had a terrible senior year in high school, and headed for an out-of-state college in order to get away from this community and her classmates. It broke my heart to leave her at a school in a town one thousand miles from home. However, she chose the right college, the right husband-to-be (although it took some time for us to recognize that), the right career track, and landed a great job. She is now married to a Christian man who adores her and cares for her. She calls home often and is active in her church and lives a strong, joyful, joy-filled witness for God.

    My son’s life choices have not been so positive so far, but I have faith that God is working in his life and guiding him slowly and gently. He quit college (to his dad’s great displeasure), but has a good-paying steady job. He decided to move out of the house eight months ago, and my tears haven’t entirely ceased. He is dealing with some anger and with a lot of frustration, but we constantly pray for him and show him love and support every opportunity we have (those rare opportunities when we are able to see him). Even though I have disappointments where he is concerned, he is still a loving, caring young man who is basically good – he likes to drive his car too fast and he does enjoy that occasional beer with friends, but his morals are strong: he does not smoke, steal, engage in premarital sex, etc., which tells me that he did listen to our teachings over his still-young lifetime. And he gives his mother and father kisses and hugs and “I love yous” whenever we are together. Despite his problems, he loves God and I know that God will continue to work in his life and bring him fully back to Him.

    My heart breaks for the families who are unable to function as a close, loving family; especially those who will never speak to each other again, or those who speak unkind and ugly words to one another, and those who are so despondent over the broken relationships that they feel death is their only way to cope. Unfortunately, this is a reality check we all need.

    It seems to me that you have raised your children well. You will miss the youthful activity and commotion in your home, but you’ve put your children into the world on the right path. They will do well. So will you and Denise.

    Thank you so much for your words.

  3. As I remarked in another post recently, we just went through this very thing last week with our oldest. Since then it’s been a process of trying to find stability, normality, and sleep! (She calls every night after band camp finishes, which is pretty late on my schedule…). We are going through all the things where she’s making choices about things her peers are urging her to do (Party? No. Go over to Wal-mart at 10PM by herself? Bad idea. Myspace page? Yes– awk!) This business of letting go as a parent, bit by bit, is the pits.
    But I really miss my baby. Mom’s an intermittent wreck. Even the dogs miss her. Little sis mostly resents the emotional climate around home, but she’s finally getting the picture, and misses her a ton besides.
    It’s tough to actually stand on our faith that 1) we gave her the tools to navigate life and 2) that the LORD really will keep her in His hand. We’re so very thankful that she hasn’t given us the kind of trouble that I’ve seen in so many other parent/kid situations. God is good, and I feel so blessed. But it still hurts…