My oldest son, Tristan, turns 11 next week and I’m struggling with it. Not with the fact that he’s a pre-teen about to go into junior high. That’s all fine. And yes, I’m struggling with the hormones and the mood swings and his incredible lack of personal hygiene. But that was all, for the most part, expected. What I’m struggling with right now is the math.
The other day I was chatting with a friend of mine at church, whose oldest son is about to turn 14. My friend is about to finish his PhD. All that remains is his dissertation, but he put it on hold. When I asked him why, he said, “I’ve got four years left with my son at home. I realized that the other day, and I just can’t waste this.”
The funny thing is, I’d been considering going back for a doctorate myself. I work at a university, and earning another degree would be a nice boost for my career. But then I started to do the math, and I only have 7 more years with my son. And when I think about that, I think about how quickly the previous 11 years passed by.
All of it reminds me of this line from Field of Dreams. You know, that movie where Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) builds a baseball field in his Iowa corn farm and all these dead and famous baseball players come out of the air and start playing ball. There’s a moment when he’s talking to Terence Mann, a guy who played half an inning in the majors. Mann describes his almost chance at playing major league ball “like coming this close to your dreams and then watch them brush past you like a stranger in a crowd. At the time, you don’t think much of it. You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening. Back then I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days.’ I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”
My life has not had quite that kind of a dramatic turning point. At least not from what I can tell. I can’t think back to a moment when I came “this close.” But when I think back on the last 11 years with my son, it feels like the years have gotten slippery. It feels like just the other day he fit between my hand and elbow. It feels like just the other day I was leaning down to help him crawl into my lap so we could read a book about noisy monsters. It seems like just the other day he got too big for me to carry anymore. It seems like just the other day he was too embarrassed to hug me in front of his friends.
When I think back on those 11 years, it feels like they went by about as quickly as a stranger brushing past me in a crowd. The day Tristan came home from the hospital, I was 24 years old. That night I leaned over his crib and looked at his small 7-pound figure curled up on his stomach, breathing softy, and I thought to myself, my life is changing. It will never be the same now.
I was right.
Becoming a father changed everything. And now, it feels like in the time it takes for traffic lights to change, his childhood is more than half over.
Sure, I have two other children. But I feel similarly about them. And there is just something about your oldest, that first child to enter your life and really shake things up that seems to come in like a bomb, and the moment you feel like you have a grip on them. The moment you feel like you finally understand them, they change and become something new. And then you get to start all over again, trying to shape this new version of your child into something valuable. And then — POOF! — it’s over, and you are left with this sinking feeling, wondering if you missed something. If you missed some moment to influence their lives for the better.
Sometimes when I think about my son moving out and heading to college, I feel like I’m approaching a cliff. I know that our relationship will continue long after he leaves our home, but the fact is, if the next 7 years moves half as fast as the previous 11, I don’t have much time left with him. And that realization leaves me with a sense of urgency. It makes me want to get as much out of our relationship as possible. It makes me want to put as much of my own life on hold as I can so we can get the most out of this time we have now.
But somehow I don’t think he feels the same way. Perhaps once we get full speed into the teen years, we’ll both be pretty sick of each other. But right now, I’m going to give him everything I can. Right now I’m going to savor the time we have left.