Letting Them Fly AwayThe hardest share was my wife's, as is still the usual way our culture works. Others might have spoken positively about the few times I carried them in a sling pack, the PTA meetings I attended, the high school proms I helped set up, the chauffeur duties, the bicycling and driving instruction, the hours spent helping our ADD child complete homework ... but for everything I did, she did ten times more.
One thing I will take credit for -- early on, I began setting a cadence for them, a common family expectation, that they would leave the family home to begin their own lives as soon as they graduated from high school.
They would have our support, of course, and they would always be welcome at our door -- but the understanding was that we expected them to establish adult lives.
My wife was least happy with this, but she accepted it as good counsel. I held out the prospect for her of decades to come when we could set aside the years of self-denial and enjoy traveling, volunteering, making our way through as the mood struck us. (We also looked forward to enjoying each other's company with less concern about what noises might filter through the bedroom walls, or who might walk in the front door at an inconvenient moment.)
The counsel I offered had support. There were neighbors whose sons rose toward their 30th birthdays, still dependent and emotionally handcuffed to their parents, unable to keep other relationships going, too unsure of themselves to hold down a steady job. The family fights that spilled out into the streets, father and son shouting obscenities at each other while mother stood in the door crying, frightening my children more than once. There was the Advent season when their house burned down, started by a cigarette smoked in bed by the younger son. There were the endless hospitalizations as the stress of their lives aged and tore all of them down.
So ours left us, hardly looking back ... more than once, it left my wife in tears, and I will admit to a few held back myself. The first left in anger, made her own way in the world determined not to ask for help even when she could have done so and received our willing support; she is a rising young veterinarian now, wife to a solid and loving fellow who is a better father than I could be for their young one. The second bounced down the jetway headed for Paris, exhausted our financial reserves, and is still finding herself in New York City (she's still my favorite, and carries the most of her mother's spirit). The third grew up early, taking to the emergency services trade as a teenager and struggling his own way through college. He found and courted his love for four years before she agreed to marry, and he put aside his faith to accept hers, though his ties to mentors at his Salesian high school are still strong.
My capstone for the gateway we ushered them through was an impromptu family meeting during their college years when I praised them for choosing their own roads, welcomed them as adults, and promised not to treat them as children any more. I reaffirmed that our door and our wallets were always open to them, our love was always with them, asked their forgiveness for any pain we had caused them, and declared all debts between us paid in full, forever. There were a few tears, and many smiles.
And my wife and I? In between her two battles with cancer, we made it to Paris. She rose to new heights at work giving legal help to the under classes of our harshly intolerant society, and in her commitment to her faith. She was given the blessing of playing with her first grandchild.
Then she had to leave this world, and all of our children came rushing to her side from hundreds of miles away. They cared for me, and then they flew back to their own lives -- but they have kept watch, to make sure that I did not falter in rebuilding my own.
It is desperately hard for me to accept that our long, long years as parents were worth the effort. But, in truth, they were -- not because they stayed close, but because they grew strong when they flew away.