Life can be viewed as a series of connections and separations and one’s adjustment to them. We arrive connected to mother by a physical cord and an emotional bond, the separations of which affect our emotional life until death. We leave childhood, enter adolescence, attend college, enter the marketplace, stagger into middle age. We grow attached to the customary. Failure to be aware of our emotional attachment can create a sadness at separation that has the power to hang on, leave one distracted, lethargic, sometimes depressed.
Often the intensity of attachment and the pain of separation culminate in an incident, a single moment that captures the depth of feelings felt but not acknowledged. One such incident took place for me when I boarded my firstborn, 13-year-old son on a plane to join his mother and brother on vacation.
This moment had been coming for a long time. The death of his boyishness was necessary for the birth of his adolescence. At least once a week I had been startled by some change in his body, mind, in our relationship. Who was this cracking-voice lad of fuzzy face, size 9˝ shoe and widening shoulders? How had he memorized the starting five of all the NCAA playoff teams? How dare his younger brother pick him over me in choosing sides for softball and Trivial Pursuit?
Now I was on my way to board him on a solo flight to Albany, N.Y., 400 miles away. We left early in the morning for the 35-minute subway trip to the airport. He took a seat across the aisle from me, sitting in silence. I considered moving next to him and saying, “You don’t have to talk, just sit near me.” His satisfied air helped me decide against the move.
At the airport my anxiety over our parting maintained a silence in me to match his age 13 self-absorption. In the middle of the terminal crowd, he spoke.
“I need money. And I’d like a magazine.”
He ducked into a newsstand, eyed the racks, passed the comics, chose a magazine. I paid.
The boarding agent looked at our one ticket and asked me, “You’re not going?” He eyed my son, debating the question I had been having for the last hour, then spoke it aloud: “Is he an unaccompanied child?” Two men studied the boy/man. The boy shifted his weight. The agent then decided. He filled out a form asking who would meet the unaccompanied child at his destination. “Stay here,” the agent said. “You’ll be boarded first.”
“Why do I have to go first?” he whispered with a felt resentment, sensing the special treatment laced with possible condescension. Adolescents specialize in the awareness of the opinion of others.
“Because you are 13,” I replied in a matter-of-fact tone. I looked at him standing there, his attempt at casualness failing to match the self-consciousness oozing out of his near-6-feet manly slouch.
We were at cross purposes, I and this young man who, perhaps more than any other person in the world, can elicit feelings of love powerful enough to stop my tongue, make me cry inside. I know this: He wants to grow up. I want him to stay the boy I know, the boy I would protect with my life, he whom I love with a fierceness that warms and enhances my own worth.
I, like most men, never seem to articulate the love for my son. A moment like this one, where our pasts coalesce into a frozen present moment, is as rich as it is fleeting.
It was time to separate. In a moment he would be free of the pressured decision: to kiss, to hug, both, neither; to shake hands, be passive, or forget it all. He had both hands on his bag. I started to put both arms around him but was halted by his failure to drop his bag.
He has always been the most demonstrative loving child, free of restraint, full of embraces and words. I gave him a strong one-armed hug, losing balance, nearly falling on him. Righting my body, but not my soul, I kissed him brusquely on the cheek.
The public affection flushed his face; his flush lit mine. Almost inaudibly he spoke.
“See ya Friday, Dad.” The hugging boy’s affection was compressed in the brevity of his manly words. I laid my hand on his shoulder, hoping that my firm, awkward grasp communicated the palpitations of my own restrained heart. In the warmth of my hand were the words “I love you”; what tumbled out of my dry mouth was “Goodbye, son.”
They led him to the head of the line, this 6-foot unaccompanied child, and down the stairs where a flight steward, smaller in stature and frame, met him. I saw him, this boy of mine, attempting casual conversation with this fellow adult. Before he ducked through the door I wanted him to turn around, blow me a kiss, wave goodbye, smile at least. He did none of these things. He never looked back.
Ray Lovett is a psychotherapist in Dorset (www.raylovett.com).
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