Today’s the day. We’re taking our son to UCF. There will be bleakness. This day has been hurtling toward us since he was born. It was once a distant meteor, invisible to the naked heart but as sure as shit as any astronomical certainty: its course for a direct hit was also graphed the day he was born, along with a day of impact as precise as the college’s firmly anal move-in appointment day, down to the hour: 3:30 p.m. at the Hercules dorm complex in our case, on that college campus oddly mapped in Homerphilia on Orlando’s periphery.
Nothing we could do—nothing we should do: parenting is also preparing for 18 years for the great extinction, then submitting on the appointed day—and paying for it to boot. We are the dinosaurs. We have to be wiped out so our children can have their own Cambrian explosions. (Anachronistic, I know: the Cambrian came first, Jurassic second. But bugger off, why don’t you: dinosaurs are not known for brain capacity.)
That we’ve been through an extinction before—with our daughter, who has since pummeled us with many more vengeful meteors—doesn’t improve things. It certainly didn’t prepare us anymore than did the odd cancers we picked up along the way. It just eroded more protective crust. We’re merely older, more cratered with age spots, our immune systems as diminished as our illusions. We cover it all up with b2 vitamins and pride in our children’s accomplishments past and, we hope, future.
Even as I write my beloved if too pious atheist son is at St. Thomas Episcopal glorying the Sunday congregation with his violin, a few hours after sharing the stage with that decidedly non-Satanic ELO tribute band at the auditorium, a few weeks from refusing to march with his FPC graduating class, because that’s how he is, a militant non-conformist attempting to break out of this prison house of conformism.
He’s been trying to hide his emancipation high from us. It’s obvious he can’t wait to go, though he had bigger designs than UCF. He got in at several out-of-state universities he wanted, even in his New York City nirvanah. But we couldn’t pay. We failed him. We’re in that donut-holed income bracket, nowhere rich enough to afford more than in-state tuition, no longer poor enough to attract FASFA mercy. And we don’t believe in graduating our children with a mortgage’s worth of debt.
Lucky for our daughter, a decade ago our barebones tax returns could yield bigger financial aid offers. That’s what had enabled her full, debt-free ride at the $60,000-a-year insanity of her choice (well, that and her better SAT scores). The ride took her 1,200 miles away, then paid off well enough to push that to 2,100 miles as she knotted up her own family on top of her successes, each mile another kiloton of blast zone for us, another acre of Eden for her: we could be Kuiper belt trash 4 billion miles away for all she cares. But she’s doing well, and we’ll be a lot further than Kuiper’s zip codes soon enough, so what does it matter? The eagle wasn’t interested in Prometheus’s sob story as it clawed his liver à la king.
My son and I haven’t had the benefits of a fractious relationship. We haven’t known a day of warfare. Unusual for a pair of Lebanese-blooded males, one more stubborn than the other, one more hotheaded than the other. At best we’ve had rare and forgettable skirmishes. But I knew the game was over when he first beat me at chess, roughly in his eighth year, after I had beaten him about 900 straight times, never once pulling so much as a pawn. My only lesson to him in 18 years had been: “figure it out.” He had. The rest was just countdown. That’s how we never went easy on him, treating him as an equal in most regards from day one. It isn’t as if he won’t have to do the same with us when Cheryl and I are back in diapers soon, though he has some work to do learning his streetsmarts. He can handle Sylvia Plath. I’m not sure he knows how to open a can of tuna. Clearly, he has his priorities straight.
But closeness has a price. I was hoping that in these last months we’d get into the kind of fights psychologists recognize (recommend?) as the natural antibody of impending separation, to ease the eventual shock. We had no such luck. I tried. I failed at that, too. And Cheryl and I picked the worst time to cut back on tripels.
So it is unforgiving when a day like today finally happens, and nothing like the closeness we’ve known for 18 years–18 and a half, the little shit reminded me just six days ago–will happen again. Sure we’ll remain close, and as a lawyer friend reminded me recently (I need help litigating god’s indifference) it’s not the old days of smoke signals, snail mail and the “long distance call,” that phrase from not so long ago that billed households with terror. But zillion-apped closeness is not the same, and we all know it. Remembering a concert, even replaying it, is not living it, and at 3:30 p.m. today the fat lady–excuse me, the plus-size lady–will finally sing.
What will I do? I’ll do what Michael Lambert did when he said goodbye to his daughter at college. He and I had just walked out of a sentencing hearing at the courthouse, where he’d managed to minimize the punishment of an idiot, very young ex-cop, in part by drawing on his own wisdom as a father. We started talking about life’s curveballs, the there-but-for-the-grace-of-god business we so easily forget or replace with distasteful self-pity, about our luck, and finally about what older men at twilight talk about: our children. Then this fearsome lawyer, one of the best in the region, this veteran of untold criminal trials who’s represented a lot worse than the Raskolnikovs of our society, told me how all he could do was sob when he said goodbye to his child when he dropped her off.
It’s not really what I’ll do. It’s what I’ve been doing, and for almost as long as that meteor began to be visible on wings of fugitive time. At 3:30 today, Luka, who’s grown a little since that column sig was taken many years ago, will no longer be hanging over my shoulder. Time’s up.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor.