I’m almost certainly going to shed some tears while writing this, but I also know I’ll feel better after, so here goes.
My son Dylan is nearly 20 and just started his second year at the university. Daniel will be 18 soon, and is in his first year of college. They’re leaving home this weekend, moving into a tiny house they’re renting together. I feel terribly sad about it. No, that’s not right. What I feel is more akin to grief.
I know, I know. This is what’s supposed to happen. We’re supposed to raise our children to be strong and independent, so they can move on with their own lives. I should be proud to have had some small hand in raising such amazing young men.
I should also be grateful that they’re going to be living in the same city. I’ll still see them regularly. Heck, they might even move back home at some point. I did.
But I’m not. I know I will remember all those things in time, but right now I just feel grief. Nearly two decades we’ve been together, the four of us (I have been married to their mother, Claudia, for nearly 23 years). I can’t remember what it’s like to not have them here.
I don’t want to remember what it’s like.
But I’m here trying to make myself feel better, so I’m going to share some more. I want you all to know how really unlikely it is that I would ever arrive at this point in my life.
Some background. I grew up on a ranch out in the middle of the Arizona nowhere. My father was an angry, unhappy man, who took a lot of his suffering out on his family. I’m the older son. I’m sure he was hoping for a tall, strong, healthy son, but instead he got a kid who was tiny, skinny and constantly sick. Nothing I did ever pleased him, no matter how I tried. All that mattered in his world was the ranch. He drove my mother away. We kids grew up afraid a lot. It wasn’t an easy time.
But I survived. I went away to college, and I made a vow to myself. I was going to do things differently. I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes he did. I wasn’t going to be married four times. I wasn’t going to miss every activity my children were ever involved in. I wasn’t going to make my children fear me.
Easier said than done. My early relationships were basically train wrecks. The longest one lasted only a little over a year.
But I kept trying, determined to do better. I worked on forgiving my father and came to see him, not as a monster, but as a man who did the best he could with what he had.
When I was 28 and traveling in Australia, I met Claudia. Somehow, I’d come far enough in my journey that she was willing to take a chance on me. It wasn’t easy for her, I know. I still had a great deal of rage and self-loathing. I had a lot of baggage.
The boys came along a few years later. I was happy to have kids, but also terrified by the prospect. It was one thing to say I’d do better than the old man, but now I was going to have to prove it. I started it out by telling them that I loved them, something I never heard from Dad until I was in my 20’s. When each boy was born, I made sure not to speak until it was my turn to hold him. Then I told him I loved him. I wanted those to be the first words they ever heard from me.
By then Claudia and I had started a custom electronics business. Home theater, security systems, networks, audio—you name it, we installed it. It was challenging and very stressful. It was also very lucrative. We started making money out of the gate, and it took off from there.
The stress ate me up. I’d grown the business too fast. I couldn’t keep up with the work and my employees. I lost weight. I drank. I had insomnia. I thought I was losing my mind.
I’d come home from work and here was my loving wife and two little kids. All they wanted was to see me and all I wanted was to be left alone. They were burdens. I didn’t have the time for them. The business was swallowing me whole.
I won’t go into more details except to say that one day I got a wake-up call. I looked around and realized I was doing the same thing my dad had done. I was putting my business ahead of my family. My children were showing the signs. My older son awakened over and over every night, crying. My marriage was falling apart.
I was going to lose everything.
I realized right then I had to change. It was difficult and caused other problems in our marriage, but I shut the business down. We left Colorado and moved back to Tucson. I took a teaching job at a K-12 charter school that my boys attended, taking about a 75% pay cut to do so.
But it gave me time with the kids and that was what mattered. The school was close, and we biked there together every day. I had all the same holidays as they did. Once a week I took each of them to lunch with me, someplace cheap like Subway because that was all we could afford, but I wanted that extra time with them. When Daniel played Little League, I was at every practice and game. Usually I was grading papers, but I was there, and it was fun.
And I discovered something beautiful and magical. My family wasn’t a burden. They were a gift. The greatest gift I could imagine. Putting myself aside and putting them first changed everything.
You hear all the time about how terrible it is raising teenagers, but I have to say I loved it. Those years were amazing.
Which is how I got to this point. My life has centered around these three people for nearly two decades, and now two of them are leaving. That’s going to leave a big hole.
But I am so, so grateful every day that I got the message way back when. That I didn’t miss this wonderful time with my sons. No amount of money or career success could ever compare to that.
So, that will be my takeaway from all this. The grief is not from regrets, but because something I loved is, not ending, but changing. New joys will arise. All because I was smart enough to realize I was making a terrible mistake.
See, I knew I’d feel better after writing this. I hope you can take something away from it.