They say children are your soul running around in the world. I sat on a chair in the airport lounge today and watched my soul leave on that plane above. It was harder than I thought, but not for the reasons you might think.
My son flew on his own for the first time today. At 8 years old, he was an unaccompanied minor on a flight to see his grandparents for a final summer hurrah before school.
When I first suggested to Zacharie that he could fly alone to see his grands, he burst with excitement. He had no worries leading up to his departure, until we got to the airport and sat down for lunch. I asked him if he was nervous. He was, but couldn’t articulate why. I didn’t push him to dig for the seed of the emotion in case it blossomed more, but it was there.
My wife was a little nervous, too. She overpacked his suitcase with gear for every situation. She grilled him with questions about what to do, and he got a “stranger danger” crash course. She knew the airline would treat him like a king, but she still wanted her kid equipped for the what ifs.
I quickly made plans for the trip once everyone had given the okay, my only concern being the $100 service charge for each leg of the flight an unaccompanied minor brings. In the end, we bent the budget to make it work.
When it finally came time to board after an hour delay, I half expected Zacharie to bolt back up the gangway, tears in his eyes.
It never happened.
The plane loaded, pushed back, and departed.
Despite my previous week of stoic confidence, my heart sank on the long walk back through the concourse to my car, alone. I thought about the achievement we had just unlocked, and while I wasn’t worried about anything “bad” happening, I was just worried about him, you know?
Would he spill juice on himself? Who would wipe it up? What if he couldn’t reach the air jets? What if there was turbulence and he got anxious? Who would hold his hand? Who would remind him not to forget his iPod, LEGOs, and books?
I had all those worry feelings millions of parents experienced these past few weeks as they sent their kids off to school for the first time.
It was the same anxious worry I had on my son’s first day of daycare. It was the same anxious worry I had on his first day of preschool. It’s always the same anxious worry.
And as I walked back through the airport, I recognized that it wasn’t the last time I’d experience this type of worry. My eyes welled with tears as I wrote a note to my wife telling her the plane had left. After a week of holding my breath, I finally exhaled and saw the moment for what it was, what it is, and what it will be again.
This anxious worry never goes away — it just changes. It will be back when he moves out, when he moves away, and when he moves on.
Our entire life is a series of steps where we give our children wings and the strength to learn to fly on their own. The first steps, the first bike ride, the first time leaving your eyesight, the first babysitter, the first school, the first … flight.
I softly sobbed inside because, once again, I was faced with the reality that, dammit, my baby is growing up.
And that is wonderfully, heartbreakingly, beautifully, inevitably painful.
Ninety minutes later I got a text from my mom. “We have him,” was all it said, and was all I needed to know.