Words From a
In the doorway of my home, I looked closely at the face of my 23-year-old
son, Daniel, his backpack by his side. We were saying good-bye. In a few hours
he would be flying to France. He would be staying there for at least a year to
learn another language and experience life in a different country.
It was a transitional time in Daniel‘s life, a passage, a step from college
into the adult world. I wanted to leave him some words that would have some
meaning, some significance beyond the moment.
But nothing came from my lips. No sound broke the stillness of my beachside
home. Outside, I could hear the shrill cries of sea gulls as they circled the
ever changing surf on Long Island. Inside, I stood frozen and quiet, looking
into the searching eyes of my son.
What made it more difficult was that I knew this was not the first time I had
let such a moment pass. When Daniel was five, I took him to the school-bus stop
on his first day of kindergarten. I felt the tension in his hand holding mine as
the bus turned the corner. I saw colour flush his cheeks as the bus pulled up.
He looked at me-as he did now.
What is it going to be like, Dad? Can I do it? Will I be okay? And then he
walked up the steps of the bus and disappeared inside. And the bus drove away.
And I had said nothing.
A decade or so later, a similar scene played itself out. With his mother, I
drove him to William and Mary College in Virginia. His first night, he went out
with his new schoolmates, and when he met us the next morning, he was sick. He
was coming down with mononucleosis, but we could not know that then. We
thought he had a hangover.
In his room, Dan lay stretched out on his bed as I started to leave for the
trip home. I tried to think of something to say to give him courage and
confidence as he started this new phase of life.
Again, words failed me. I mumbled something like, "Hope
you feel better Dan." And I left.
Now, as I stood before him, I thought of those lost opportunities. How many
times have we all let such moments pass? A boy graduates from school, a daughter
gets married. We go through the motions of the ceremony, but we don‘t seek out
our children and find a quiet moment to tell them what they have meant to us. Or
what they might expect to face in the years ahead.
How fast the years had passed. Daniel was born in New Orleans, LA., in 1962,
slow to walk and talk, and small of stature. He was the tiniest in his class,
but he developed a warm, outgoing nature and was popular with his peers. He was
coordinated and 6)agile, and he became adept in sports.
Baseball gave him his earliest challenge. He was an outstanding pitcher in
Little League, and eventually, as a senior in high school, made the varsity,
winning half the team‘s games with a record of five wins and two losses. At
graduation, the coach named Daniel the team‘s most valuable player.
His finest hour, though, came at a school science fair. He entered an exhibit
showing how the circulatory system works. It was primitive and crude,
especially compared to the fancy, computerized, blinking-light models entered by
other students. My wife, Sara, felt embarrassed for him.
It turned out that the other kids had not done their own work-their parents
had made their exhibits. As the judges went on their rounds, they found that
these other kids couldn‘t answer their questions. Daniel answered every one.
When the judges awarded the Albert Einstein Plaque for the best exhibit, they
gave it to him.
By the time Daniel left for college he stood six feet tall and weighed 170
pounds. He was muscular and in superb condition, but he never pitched another
inning, having given up baseball for English literature. I was sorry that he
would not develop his athletic talent, but proud that he had made such a mature
One day I told Daniel that the great failing in my life had been that I
didn‘t take a year or two off to travel when I finished college. This is the
best way, to my way of thinking, to broaden oneself and develop a larger
perspective on life. Once I had married and begun working, I found that the
dream of living in another culture had vanished.
Daniel thought about this. His friends said that he would be insane to put
his career on hold. But he decided it wasn‘t so crazy. After graduation, he
worked as a waiter at college, a bike messenger and a house painter. With the
money he earned, he had enough to go to Paris.
The night before he was to leave, I tossed in bed. I was trying to figure out
something to say. Nothing came to mind. Maybe, I thought, it wasn‘t necessary to
What does it matter in the course of a life-time if a father never tells a
son what he really thinks of him? But as I stood before Daniel, I knew that it
does matter. My father and I loved each other. Yet, I always regretted never
hearing him put his feelings into words and never having the memory of that
moment. Now, I could feel my palms sweat and my throat tighten. Why is it so
hard to tell a son something from the heart? My mouth turned dry, and I knew I
would be able to get out only a few words clearly.
“Daniel," I said, "if I could have picked, I would have picked you."
That‘s all I could say. I wasn‘t sure he understood what I meant. Then he
came toward me and threw his arms around me. For a moment, the world and all its
people vanished, and there was just Daniel and me in our home by the sea.
He was saying something, but my eyes misted over, and I couldn‘t understand
what he was saying. All I was aware of was the stubble on his chin as his
face pressed against mine. And then, the moment ended. I went to work, and
Daniel left a few hours later with his girlfriend.
That was seven weeks ago, and I think about him when I walk along the beach
on weekends. Thousands of miles away, somewhere out past the ocean waves
breaking on the deserted shore, he might be scurrying across Boulevard Saint
Germain, strolling through a musty hallway of the Louvre, bending an elbow in a
Left Bank café.
What I had said to Daniel was clumsy and trite. It was nothing. And yet,
it was everything.