When we used to take our son Matt to summer camp, there were three things we were sure of. One – he wasn’t going to miss any of us for one second that he was gone. Two – he was going to have a blast doing all the camp things because bad food, bad beds, snoring counselors, biting bugs, algae-infested lake water, and oppressive heat wouldn’t slow him down. And three – he wouldn’t brush his teeth the entire week. I thought of these things this morning when we dropped him off to go to Basic Training for the Army.
I would have to say that it was one of the stranger things I’ve done as a parent. We took him to an armory where he had to report, and then went with him to the airport where he got on a plane to Fort Benning, Georgia. At the airport we had about two hours with him at the gate – didn’t know until today that as a ‘military’ family you can escort a military person all the way to the gate (which means you get to experience the fun of TSA without the payoff of actually getting on a flight) – and just hung out before saying goodbye for about four months. It was actually pretty nice to just sit with no agenda and enjoy being together.
What was weird were the thoughts and emotions that were going through my mind. It wasn’t so much, “Where has the time gone, how can he be 19 and leaving for the army?” I think as a parent you have those thoughts (minus the army) all the time. It was more, “What the heck have I done as a parent? Why didn’t I do more? Why wasn’t I more diligent? Why didn’t I have a plan?” I didn’t think this, by the way, because Matt isn’t prepared for what he’s about to go through – I really think he is. I guess it was more the thought that I should’ve been better – I should’ve led him better spiritually, I should’ve made him into a Bible reader, I should’ve had my own act together so I was a better example of a godly man.
Really, what it boiled down to was that I was watching a MAN get on a plane to go to BOOT CAMP and realized that that’s my son and so much about my role in his life is over. I’ve known him since he was a tiny ball that his crying birth mother handed to us when he was four weeks old. Since he was the baby with the most toxic diaper of any kid in the western hemisphere. Since he was the preschooler who always cried when I dropped him at Sunday School, and who told me ‘yes’ after I rehearsed with him that I always came back and asked him if he’d still cry even knowing that I always came back. Since he was the toddler who told me very seriously that it was five times after I in exasperation asked him, “How many times have I told you not to do that?!!” Since he was the teen who started looking at potential cars about three years before he got his license. Since he was the guy who turned into almost a carbon copy of my dad with his old-school political views, NRA membership, jeans jacket, and hatred of pretense of any kind. And since he was the high school graduate who – selected to speak at his graduation ceremony – wanted to (but didn’t) make his speech about how school was a waste of time and the only things he really learned were at his law enforcement class at the career center.
I stood there – with Harry Chapin playing in my mind – and fluctuated between almost crying (which I REALLY didn’t want to do because both he and my daughter would’ve never let me live it down), feeling regret, and feeling incredibly proud of the man he’s become and the choice he’s made. And along with those thoughts it occurred to me that so much of life is in reverse. I know a lot today because of yesterday, but I really needed to know it yesterday. But if it weren’t for yesterday, I wouldn’t know anything today. Said another way, I now have the wisdom to live through what I’ve already lived through. I now have the perspective to be a good parent for young kids I don’t have anymore.
My melancholy, however, didn’t take away from the importance of Mattie leaving and what that means in his life. He’s gone and in God’s care. He’s starting the first real portion of his life as a man on his own. My prayer is that he’ll thrive. He’s not much of a runner, but he’s strong as an ox and eats push-ups and pull-ups for lunch (as unlike his dad as it’s humanly possible to be). He also has no problem with a lack of creature comforts or hygiene. In that way, he’s prepared. What I pray is that this experience doesn’t lead him to think that real men don’t need God. What I hope is that such an intense few months makes his relationship with his Savior his own.
At the end of the day, God miraculously gave Matt to us and He now goes with him to Georgia. And whether I did a good or bad job as his dad is beside the point. He belongs to God – not me. And God loves him in a way I can’t fathom. I pray that both Matt and I will realize that even more profoundly over the next four months.