The little boy who no longer lives here

I won't be reading this column today; it was hard enough just to write it. This is the father-notes-little-boy-growing-up column that I fought off a dozen times. Nick's high school graduation was in June. I attended, of course, and found myself too melancholy - and too much in denial - to write about it in public. Saturday was take-the-first-child-to-college day. I resisted, with full self-consciousness, taking up this space and your time with my little bit of miserable joy - what my Portuguese ancestors called saudade, the mixture of feelings one experiences at the landmark events of life. But it didn't work, so you'll just have to bear with me.

Besides, I've learned lately - and never really appreciated it before now - that many other parents are experiencing the same feelings."It was by far the saddest and hardest day of my life as a parent," a friend wrote in a commiserative e-mail last week. "I thought such a distinction was reserved for the day I would walk my little girl down the aisle. ... No, it was the day we took my son to Syracuse University. I guess, looking back, we were this perfectly happy family of four and life was great until one day we woke up and realized that one of the foursome had a new role to assume."

Over the many years of writing for The Evening Sun and then the morning paper, I wasn't much for telling family stories. Wise editors discouraged it.

So, after Nick was born, you never read much about him in this space. Occasionally, I referred to him as "the little boy who lives in our house," but only when news events compelled commentary from a parent's perspective.

One day in 1995, we had the television on, and the news was all about the bombing in Oklahoma City, with children among the victims. I noted how "the little boy who lives in our house" seemed drawn into this horrible news the way he was usually drawn into cartoons, and my instinct as a parent trumped my need-to-know as a journalist. I shut off the television, hoping to protect Nick from the cruelty of the world just a little longer.

During the Summer Games of 1996, I wrote: "The little boy in our house built an Olympic Village out of Lego blocks, then looked up for assurance that the real Olympic Village, the one in Atlanta, was far away. He only asked, of course, after news of the bomb in Centennial Olympic Park."

At times, there were advantages to allowing him to watch a limited amount of television, particularly the low-rent channels, with cheap commercials.

"Do we have a lawyer?" he asked his mother one day.

"No, Nick. Why?"

"Because we have a phone, and the TV says if we have a phone we have a lawyer."

In 1996, as he watched a television news report on the Arizona presidential primary, he asked an important question: "Dad, is Bob Dole still alive?"

(Another reason I was never much for columns about my own children: Kids say the darnedest things, but often their parents are the only ones amused.)

I doubt you will remember it, but I once described attending an afternoon meeting with a television executive, being thoroughly bored, not wanting to be there, gazing at the quaking trees outside his office window and looking forward to my son's rec-council baseball game. It was the evening of Nick's 10th birthday. His team did well, miraculously keeping the score tied into the final inning, but Nick had not contributed. He'd struck out twice. When called upon to pitch, he hit two batters and, under the rules, got the hook for doing so. He bowed his head and cried when his coach had to reassign him to first base.

I watched from a distance. It reminded me of a time when I took all emotional cues from the progress of a particular game, or season, or team. Most of us grow up and move away from competitive sports, and find our successes and disappointments elsewhere - in relationships, in our careers. There are a thousand little frustrations and even times when we think we'll never smile again. But the miracle is that, in the next minute of twilight, everything can turn around, just as it did that night.

In the next inning, Nick hit a home run, won the game and happily passed out birthday cupcakes to all his teammates.

The eight years since then seem like a blur, of course, and I find myself, now that he's gone off to college, scratching around for every last blink of memory from when he was 11 and 12, 13 and 14. What I never wrote in this space - because it's just not what I get paid to do - was how proud he made us and how much I admired his brawny work ethic, his leadership, his friendship with his sister, his choice of friends and loyalty to them, his manner with elders, his tenacity in ice hockey and lacrosse, his willingness to sing and dance on stage.

I told Nick all this - packed it all into one heaving, sobbing, loving hug - on Saturday evening in the parking lot near his freshman dorm 312 miles from home. And then we did what fathers and mothers across the country have to do at times like these: We let go.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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