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Thoughts from an Empty Nester Dad as He Takes His Youngest Kid to College

Father's Day

I’ll have to ask everyone to forgive me for the Facebook post nature of this blog. And for being off the grid for the rest of this week. I’m never really comfortable taking time off because I consider myself to be an earner in the Barstool crime family. But I’m going to spend the next few days living out one of those Major Life Events you know is coming the minute you decide to start a family. I’m moving my younger son into his freshman year in college.

It’s another one of those milepost moments in your life when you are transformed. When you’re older than you were the day before. And not just by 24 hours. You are older by one Major Life Event. Which is ultimately the way we all measure time, whether we realize it or not.

This particular event is one of the biggest for me personally. Maybe just behind getting married and having kids in the first place in the MLE rankings. Not just because my enchanting Irish Rose and I will be coming home in a few days to an empty house, huge as that is. But also because it’s checking one of those boxes I’ve had on my punch list almost as long as I can remember.

I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, though not here. But a short time ago, I outlived my father. If that sounds like it’s hard to process, imagine how hard it was for me. It certainly snuck up on me. He had heart troubles in the days of invasive surgery when they were still opening up Bobby Orr’s knees like they were carving a turkey, and he died of heart failure on August 19th of the year I was 9. I remember the date because it was my sister’s 16th birthday. (Which always made every episode of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16″ where the girl throws a fit because her parents give her the Porsche waaay too early which ruins her party, all the more entertaining.)

Anyway, every since then, the whole “sending a son off to college” thing has been a scenario I’ve played out in my head a million times. Different than sending No. 1 son off to Marine Corps boot camp. Because that I never saw coming. That was his vision. But college? I don’t think there’s a man alive who gets handed a baby in the delivery room and doesn’t look at the wriggling little ball of messy noisy, kinetic energy in his hands without fast forwarding to this day on some level. And for this two-time dad, it’s finally arrived.

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The thing I keep going back to is how, ever since Bud Thornton’s heart ran out of summers, his relationship and mine has been frozen in time. He’ll forever be the giant who let me sit on his lap while he was reading the newspaper and smoking Chesterfields, telling me stories about his adventures serving on an aircraft carrier in the war while his razor stubble pressed against my face and I felt the safest I’ve ever felt in my life. And ever since that day not long ago when I took one more step down the Mortality Highway than he ever did, I’ve tried to appreciate it’s another day I’m getting that he was denied. Another day to experience the things he never got to. Like guiding your sons through the awkward, wretched teen years. Getting choked up when their names get called at graduation. Being there to help carry their carload of crap into a dorm room for the first time. And hope like hell they’ll always have more good memories than just sitting on your lap when they were little. That they’ll remember how you coached their teams and interacted with their friends and didn’t embarrass them too severely, except once in a while. Basically, that you were there and these times were special to them as much as they were to you.

There’s one universal experience every father worth a damn can relate to. And that’s teaching your kid how to ride a bike. You grab the handle bars and the back of the bike seat and get them to pedal as hard as they can before you let go. And they fall. Without fail, they fall. (Pro tip: Always start them on grass. You’ll thank me later.) So you grab the bike again and let go again. And they fall again. And again. Until they don’t. There’s that moment when your hand lets go of the bike seat for the last time. Of both of your lives. And they don’t need you to hold them up, ever again. Then they’re riding off with friends. Then you blink and the bike wheels are replaced with car wheels. And eventually, with the wheels of the Airbus they’ll be flying home for Thanksgiving. And all you can do is hope that somehow you did everything right by them before you let go that final time.

If I’ve got one regret in my own life (besides not growing up to be Captain of the Starship Enterprise like I’d planned), it’s that I never got to live the college life. I went to state school and I commuted and after class I’d go to my job or hang out with the guys I grew up with. And always wished I got to live away school. But it’s deep in the human race to want your kids to do better than you did, and now I’m getting that chance. One son is off at WVU on the GI Bill. And without him going off to serve, sacrificing four years of his life and a portion of his health, I’m not sure how we would’ve arranged for two kids in school. But because he did and because saving for tuition was always a priority, this is happening. His younger brother gets to go off to the school he chose. A place he can get life experience, training for a career (I’ll drink to that), and a chance to pursue the Catholic faith that’s been so important to him.

As a parent, you hope he does all those things. As a dad, you hope he does other things. That he has fun. Makes bad decisions. Does stupid stuff that leaves no lasting damage to anyone or anything. Learns about Beer Goggles the hard way. And so on. Essentially, lives the college life. I doubt all that will happen. (If you’ll excuse the deep nerd pull, best analogy I can draw up is my kids are Boromir and Faramir, just hopefully without the asshole father.) But what’s the point in going to college if you’re not going to go to college? I didn’t transfer those funds and watch their mother go full ending of “Toy Story 3″ just to have them study and get good grades.

As far as advice goes, my first instinct is to tell him what the greatest of all Thorntons said about education:

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But that kind of wisdom is lost on Millennials. I’ve never been much of a poetry guy, but there is one I like that fits the moment. When the Irish Rose and I went on a trip last year No. 2 son slipped a Jesus prayer about safe travels into our luggage. When he unpacks in his dorm later on, he’s going to find Rudyard Kipling’s “If” from me. One of the best uses of the English language ever written:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

tl;dr. Thanks for humoring me. See you all in few days.