I stood outside the school as my 4-year-old lined up with his pre-K class in a single file. He looked at me and raised his tiny hand. We mirrored one another’s waves. He lowered his hand and took a step forward. As he did this, his little hand raised once again and waved. I waved back. Before he entered the door, he looked back one more time and waved at me. With tears welling up in my eyes, I waved back.
Fourteen years later, I stood outside the Army recruitment center with my son and his mom, where a bus would take him far, far away. Before he entered the building, he raised his hand and waved goodbye. With tears streaming down my face, I lifted my hand and waved goodbye.
I had 18 years to prepare for the moment, but it wasn’t long enough.
It’s pretty common for parents to wish they had done a lot of things differently when their children become adults. Before my son boarded a bus to Uncle Sam’s, I looked back at my life as his dad. Many regrets flooded over me. Times when my discipline was too harsh, struck me. Moments as his soccer coach when I was too hard on him have always been a constant sorrow. Then there were movies I wanted to watch with him, music I wanted him to hear, and more things I wish I had said. And things that I wanted to hear him say.
When I used to push him around in a stroller, I would occasionally hear another dad say, “It goes by fast.” I heard it so much that I would get annoyed. Silly, I know. Now that I’m looking back on his life, I admit they were right. Life indeed goes by fast. Way too fast. So fast that it makes me angry.
I believe I was a pretty good dad, yet, those regrets hurt. And so, I try to remember the good moments. The moments where we laughed and played. The times I sat on the floor with him and played with Star Wars action figures or kicked around a soccer ball in the backyard. The moments I placed a Band-Aid on a skinned knee, or held him after getting a shot. I recall every soccer game he ever played and every award he’s ever received.
I grieve at the loss of childhood.
Being a stay-at-home parent is a privilege. It means you miss nothing. I’ve had a front-row seat to my children’s lives. We got to experience the world together. Now that he’s in the Army, our lives branched off. We have a job as parents to prepare our kids for adulthood. To pave a way so they can ride. His journey is his now and not ours. I’ll be relegated to being a sounding board and hearing stories about what’s going on in his life. If advice is sought, I’ll be ready to offer it.
The door closed behind him and I stood outside his school 14 years ago, wondering, “What now?” I slowly turned and walked toward my home. A home that would be a lot quieter without him. When the doors to the school opened up later that day, I was waiting outside. My arms were wide open, and I hugged my son.
A few weeks ago, I turned and walked toward my home, wondering, “What now?” A home full of noises from his younger siblings awaited, but his absence left a deafening void.
I’m waiting and my arms are ready to stretch.
A version of this previously appeared on One Good Dad. Photos by Jason Greene.