(Note: I wrote this column for UPI in 2007, the year my son turned 18, my mother died, and I wrote my first book Writing Down Your Soul. Five years and four books later, I still think this is the best thing I’ve ever written. It may be the best thing I’ll ever write. The “River of Life” Goodbye bBessing letter to my son is certainly the most important.)
This is my Goodbye Season. Endings abound. My son is eighteen; it’s time for him to leave this house. My mother is dying; it’s time for her to leave this planet. And when she does, I’ll also be saying goodbye to the town where I grew up. My parent’s names on a tombstone will be our family’s last address in Marshfield, Wisconsin. My professional life is changing, too. Endings abound.
Endings deserve attention — recognition that they are part of the cycle of existence. Endings are necessary and good, even when they are sad. Endings create the space for new life, new ideas, new experiences. The new is waiting, but first, there must be a blessing. Ancient fathers understood this. They put their hands on their son’s foreheads and pronounced a blessing. Without that blessing, the son would not — could not — leave. With the blessing, the son could step into the fray of life, knowing his family’s honor and love and inheritance are with him always.
And so it is for my son. He turned eighteen last week. I gave him an avant-garde block print from an edgy London artist, a little money (that he says he might spend on a tattoo), and a ticket to New York. I saved the best gift for last. My blessing. This is how I said goodbye and sent him into The River of Life.
Eighteen years ago today you entered life. For quite awhile prior we’d been having odd conversations, you and I, so you weren’t born on April 26th, it was just the first day we could see your perfect face. Your name till then was Alfie. As in, What’s it all about, Alfie?
And we were certainly trying to figure out what it was all about. Me, hosting a soul who had chosen a forty-year old woman for whom motherhood was a distant, tiny, and quickly fading possibility, and big Jer (who before you was the only Jerry), a forty-one-year-old man who had never anticipated marriage or fatherhood. You certainly swept us into a new branch of The River of Life! A branch we were not paddling toward — not consciously. Maybe our eyes were on some other fork, but our souls must have wanted to go here because suddenly, there we were in the Family River. Thanks to you. Thank you for choosing us.
In the end, despite the rapids and rain, I hope you’ll decide that you chose wisely. The trip has certainly been rich. You have been given powerful gifts by your father, gifts that you have taken, absorbed, and enriched. I’m confident he would be proud to say you stand on his shoulders and reach higher and deeper. If you decide to get that tattoo, you can put his insignia on your body and tell the world what it means: “A vote against boredom and mediocrity.” It’s clear that you are not going down the boredom river. You will not live a dull, safe, obedient life. I’m confident and proud of that. And mediocrity? No way. Originality? Yes. Intellectual inquiry? Yes. Imagination? Yes. Mediocrity? Definitely not.
This is a big birthday. Even if feels like just another day. It is, nevertheless, a milestone. Eighteen is big and important. Everything is changing. There may be more change in the next few months than at any other time in your life. You are stepping into manhood, choosing your college, leaving home, entering the world of work, and embarking on your first single-handed trek through Europe. In the next year, you’ll make new friends, find your way in a new city, study at a level you’ve never experienced before, be inspired by real professors, and at long last, find your verbal and intellectual peers — people who will challenge your every thought and word. It may not happen right away, but over time, you will find your people, your place, and your home.
You are ready. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel or shouldn’t feel scary. You are swimming out of the family branch of the river, and taking off down your own River Jerry. And, the truth is, you do not know what you will see or experience or feel. You don’t know what will happen in college, at work, or in life. You can’t see any further ahead than a few hundred yards. No one can. (Some people pretend they can, or convince themselves they can, but we are all equally blind to the vagaries and rocks ahead.) But the river knows, and its strong current is pulling you forward. And the urge to go is so much greater than the fear of the unknown. If it weren’t, you’d settle for safety, that mediocrity your father so abhorred. So, my job right now is to bless you and send you on your way. The river is waiting.
The best gift I can give you is the bits of wisdom I’ve acquired on my own rather tumultuous journey. Here’s what I’m sure of:
- You chose to be here; your soul has its reasons and those reasons will unfold.
- You are special, unique. There is no other G__ W__ K__ and no one else who can live your life or leave your footprints in the world. The world needs and wants and is waiting for you.
- It’s all going somewhere and makes sense at the end, but not at the moment you’re in it. Never at the moment you’re in it.
- Life is easier when you flow with it instead of fight it. This is simple to say and very difficult to do. It may be the reason we come.
- Bad things are good things. Twist them inside out and there’s good or wisdom or something that will fall out and make you say, “Aah.” But it does not follow that good things are bad. Good things are good. Because, in the end, it’s all good.
- Breathe. When all else fails, breathe.
- You are always blessed, protected, guided, and loved.
- I loved you before you were born, I love you today, and I will love you every day of my life. (And I’m pretty sure after, but we’ll have to wait and see about that.)
- I am always here for you, for support, love, a shoulder, an ear, a pocketbook. What I have, in the end, is yours.
Welcome, angel, to the second phase of your life. You are ready. And I am ready to let go. The River is waiting. Go. Go make a difference in the world.
And so he goes. Into his branch of The River. With a rich blessing on his head and in his heart. Although his father is no longer here to convey a blessing himself, I trust that I have spoken well for both of us.
As I watch my son drift away, I whisper, “Goodbye my darling boy, goodbye,” and turn my face toward Wisconsin to explore the next phase in my Goodbye Season — goodbye to the woman who can never really die; she lives in my DNA.
We all have our Goodbye Seasons. Some are more compressed. Some more dramatic. Some desperately painful. Some we resist. Some we embrace. But all changes are a death — a little death perhaps, but a death. All are a birth, too. Our job, I think, is not to struggle to figure the changes out. Our job is to bless the going and the coming.