The infrastructure of my life shifted five years ago when I drove my daughter to the Calgary airport to embark on her way to the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Her mother was going with her for a week to help her settle in. In the days preceding this event, I was excited for my daughter, our firstborn, and this next big step in her life. I was not apprehensive in the slightest, knowing only that she would be home again in 14 weeks or so and that she had no shortage of relatives out east to provide a safety net should something go wrong.
I was proud of her. Still am. That same mood prevailed right through the (overweight) baggage check-in and up until the moment when the little girl who was no more hugged me goodbye.
And then I began to weep. Not huge, sobbing tears, mind you; just a soft, seemingly restrained and yet relentless trickle of tears that was without sharp pain but rife with nostalgia.
Waves of memories of little butterfly kisses and bedtime stories, of kittens and cuddles and giggles and tickles and sugar and spice and all things nice overwhelmed me.
I cried as she turned her back and headed through the security gates. I cried as I watched her long, beautiful hair bounce out of sight, and I cried as I walked back to the car with my son. Then I cried all the way home.
For an hour I couldn’t stop, even as I tried manfully to mock my sniffles and chuckle along with the comforting words of my equally bemused son.
I think about that day and the day three years later when we drove our son to Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. I was more composed then, because I knew what was coming when he and I bade his boyhood farewell (even though I’m not sure he recognized The Moment as clearly as I did) with a hug.
This time I was ready, and he and I being guys and all that, well, I didn’t want to embarrass him. I stifled—okay, almost—the tears as they welled up. Nipped ’em in the bud, I thought.
But about half an hour down the road, as the car began the climb up into the mountains and across to the Big Blue Sky that is my home, I was once again wiping away gentle tears and the same snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails and hockey games thing started bopping around in my head like Gene Kelly. Perhaps tears come to men—at last, some might say—in middle age.
I struggle still to understand how thoughts and feelings, the depth of which I was obviously not fully conscious, could have caught me so unawares. And I still wonder for whom I was crying and why it was, as Shakespeare said, such a sweet sorrow.
I certainly wasn’t sad for my children, of whom I am sinfully proud. They, after all, were heading off to lives that I dream will be full and rich, even though we all know they will suffer disappointment and heartache at some point and I won’t be there to care for them.
Was I mourning for me? After all, I can still recall making a visit back to my university when I was about 40 and staring across its beauty at ancient Acadian dykes and the Bay of Fundy and sighing, “Man, I’ve missed this place,” only to have my son immediately rip away my mask and send a dagger through my poetic pretence with a quick “Dad, I think you just miss being young.”
Was it my youth I mourned when my daughter turned her back that day? When my wife puts a 15-year-old picture up on the fridge of the kids holding hands as they head off to school together, or jostling with Pooh and Goofy at Disneyland, is it nostalgia for their youth or mine that makes me pause?
A full answer will probably never be available, which is fine for people like me who enjoy asking questions that don’t always have answers. All I know is that I neither heard nor foresaw the emotional train that hit me on those days, and that, on the day I left home for university myself, I regret having bid my own parents such a casual farewell. I should have said thank you. But I didn’t know then what was coming any more than I knew what was coming five years ago.
That, I guess, is the beauty of life. Even when it hurts, it can have a gentle sweetness.
“Grown men cry too” was originally published on September 1, 2008 by The Globe and Mail.