He leaned his head against the window as the plane powered up for takeoff, and when the ground slipped away, his face split into a familiar grin.
At 21, our son Alex was enjoying his first flight. While it was fun to share the experience with him, my feelings were decidedly mixed. Derek and I were taking him to his new home in Houston.
I’m not a newbie when it comes to kids leaving the nest, but I’ve never had a son fly so far. Alex and his older brother, Ethan, 24, have always lived within a few miles of the family home. Houston is 2,123 miles from Spokane by car. I know. I checked.
The fact that this is the right choice for Alex and a great opportunity for him didn’t dull the ache in my heart. Flying is expensive and time-consuming, and it will probably be a year before we see him again.
The trip wasn’t all gloom and despair. We laughed at the airport when Derek got flagged for special attention by the TSA agent. “Sir, do you have anything in your crotch area?” the agent asked.
Derek looked bewildered. I could see so many possible – but inappropriate – replies flashing through his mind. Alex and I collapsed in a fit of giggles, while Derek calmly endured his pat down. “I’ve had Army physicals,” he said. “That didn’t even come close.”
Soon we were buckled in and on our way. It doesn’t surprise me that this son is the first to move so far from home – I’ve spent many years chasing him. I yelled “Slow down, Alex!” so much he thought Slowdown was his first name.
He’s always been fearless. He never found a tree high enough, a skateboard ramp steep enough, a roller coaster fast enough. Unfortunately, that same fearlessness propelled him headlong into some bad choices, and now at last he’s ready for a fresh start.
While I wish he could have that new beginning closer to me, I’ve supported and encouraged this move. He won’t know the strength of his wings until he tests them.
After a long day of travel we found an Italian restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. We laughed and traded stories and remembrances throughout our meal, trying our best to not make it seem like a last supper.
The next day, we loaded the rental car with all our son’s worldly goods – at least those we could afford to fly out with us, and delivered Alex to his new digs.
We spent some time touring the area, but we all knew we were putting off the inevitable. At last, Alex wrapped his arms around me in a fierce hug. “I love you, Mom,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
Derek and I walked to the car and sat there for a long time. Neither of us felt confident enough to navigate a strange city with tear-filled eyes. I turned to my husband, “Can you believe he said, ‘Don’t worry, Mom!’ You’d think after 21 years, he’d know me!”
My husband shook his head. “It’s time to let him go, Cindy.” And with that he started the car. “Let’s go to Galveston!” he said. And we hit the road.
Less than an hour later we were on a ferry watching dolphins play and pelicans swoop in to catch fish in the bay. We took a long walk down acres of sandy white beach. We walked in silence for the most part – each lost in our own memories of our dark-haired boy.
Watching the waves crash and break along the shore soothed our tender hearts. We stood on a jetty for the longest time until the wind picked up and the spray sent droplets our way. I took Derek’s hand. “This was a good idea,” I said. And I didn’t mean just the Galveston outing – I meant our decision to help our son launch into a brave, new life.
We spent the next day in San Antonio. And at each stop from the Alamo, to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium, to the delightful shops and restaurants along the famed Riverwalk, we’d turn to each other and say, “Next year… .” Or “Alex will love this … .”
If baby birds need to fly from their nests to strengthen their wings, then perhaps mommy and daddy birds need to strengthen their hearts by letting their little ones fly.
All I know is my heart didn’t break when our flight took off and circled the sprawling city. How could it? I willingly left a piece of it in Houston, and it will still be there for me next year when I return.
This column appeared in the Spokesman Review, May 15, 2014.