Commentary & Family life 20 Jun 2009 07:39 am

Last wagon ride

Below is my June 18 column from The Alliance Review.

As my wife and I were walking Sunday morning, we passed a young mother pulling her son in a wagon. Suddenly, he jumped out and raced through what was evidently his yard. “I’ll see you ’round back,” he shouted over his shoulder. Then he was gone.

It is as apt a metaphor for raising kids as I can think of. One moment you’re pulling the wagon, keeping one eye peeled for what’s ahead and the other on the precious cargo behind; the next, you’re staring down at the handle and the remnants of the dependence, wondering what happened, stunned at how quickly the change occurred.

The night before, my wife and I and a few family members and friends had been sitting around a picnic table in the dying light of a beautiful summer’s day, watching as our daughter opened high school graduation cards and gifts. I realized that a major part of our lives as parents was coming to an end. We’d navigated the stormy seas of adolescence: the first love and heartbreak, the academic and athletic successes and failures, the mood swings that took us up and down like yo-yos. We’d survived the driver’s license and the dances, the sprained ankles and pulled ligaments, the auditions and ruminations and recriminations (whoever decided it was important for kids to know at age 18 how they will spend the rest of their lives was crazy) that go along with shepherding another life until he or she can start making intelligent decisions without you.

All those times when she and her friends would turn the front porch into a tent city with help from blankets and bed sheets, or we would hand out Popsicles or hot chocolate at the breakfast bar, or play backyard badminton until the grass was wet with dew and it was too dark to see the birdie — those times were gone, proof as always that the days and weeks go slow, but the months and years go fast.

And it occurred to me then that somewhere in the last year, our role had shifted from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” that while she might still come to us for advice and financial help, our days of pointing her in one direction and saying march — and with a headstrong young lady, I could count those days on one hand and have a few fingers left over, anyway — were up.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know parents who want to wind back the clock and keep their children forever young, dependent and innocent. If I were like Peabody and his boy Sherman and had access to a Wayback Machine, I’d want to relive an hour or two every now and again, but I wouldn’t want to stay there.

For one thing, there are too many cool things coming up to spend too much time looking back. I don’t know what shape those things will take, whether they will be the traditional college graduation, wedding and grandchildren, or if they’ll be more off the beaten track. Likely, there will be a few heartbreaks and unexpected detours (expected detours hardly qualify, do they?), because we forget that the Chinese expression “May you live in interesting times” is really a curse. Nobody has a guarantee on anything other than this moment, right now, today, anyway, but I’m cautiously optimistic, because it doesn’t pay to be anything else.

“You know,” my mom said to me that Saturday night, “it wasn’t all that long ago that I was planning your graduation party, and now here I am again.”

Parenthood is like that, I guess. I talk to some people who are a little farther along the road and they tell me to wait until my daughter turns 21, or 30, or 50. And I know I won’t have long to wait, because I just blinked and went from 18 to 41, myself.

So my heart was full last Sunday when I saw the little guy jump from the wagon and make his break. I wondered if it would be the last time his mother would ever pull him in a wagon, and maybe she didn’t even realize it.

If I were the advice-giving kind, I would tell her to hop into the wagon herself and hold on tight. It’s the bumpiest, most wonderful ride in the world, and she’ll need all four wheels just to keep up.

One Response to “Last wagon ride”

  1. on 20 Jun 2009 at 1.karen m said …

    Chris,
    I read this in the paper the other day, and it brought tears to my eyes. I just watched my third child, Ashlee, graduate from Ohio State last Sunday, so I am still a little emotional. My son, Ian, is going into his junior year, and he is my last one at home. I can definitely relate to your wagon metaphor, along with all the memories your talked about experiencing with your daughter. However, as you said, there are many great times ahead, so although we have to look back at times, we cannot allow ourselves to get too sad about life going on as it should. Best wishes to your daughter!

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