The day had finally arrived. I knew it was coming. I had tried to prepare myself for it, but it still hit me like a sledgehammer. This was the day we would take my firstborn and oldest son Jadon off to college. I had spent the last ten months of his High School Senior year trying to ready myself for the emotions of this day, but nothing could prepare me for what I felt and experienced.
It began the very first day of High School almost a year earlier. The moment Jadon and my middle son Ryder, a high school freshman at the time, drove off to school together at 6:45am, with the morning sun rising over their heads, I stood alone in the driveway, and began to cry as I watched them drive away. It seemed only seconds ago that they were little kids, and we were all racing bikes in the driveway, and shooting each other with nerf guns. Now, they were grown teenagers. Though many had warned me, I was still stunned by how fast the time had flown.
Little did I know, the tears I shed that morning would only be the first of many tears I would shed over the next several months. I prayed with them, and watched them drive away every single day of that Senior School year for Jadon. I tried to soak up every moment. I knew the time was fleeting. Though I tried to stop it or slow it down, it just seemed to sift through my hands like sands in an hourglass.
By 9:00am that departing day for college, two cars were packed fully with clothes, more shoes than I care to count, a microwave, a mini-refrigerator, and a handful of mementos to help Jadon feel at home, though he was going to be geographically far away.
It had all been planned. The last thing Jadon would do before pulling out of the driveway that day would be to pull up the sign in the front yard that had been announcing to all the world for the last three months that he was an official High School Graduate. It would be the last turn, the last official act that would move him over from High School to College, from youth to adult. That part alone would be difficult.
Sure, on the surface, it was just a sign, but beneath the surface, it was so much more. It was the turning of a page from his childhood, the first eighteen years of his life, into adulthood. Personally, I had to grieve the loss of his childhood, and so did he. It was not easy, but it was necessary. The tears were not so much because of what we were leaving behind, but more tears of gratitude that we even got to do it. Every moment of his childhood had been such a dream, and we were thankful for it. This is why taking down the sign was more than just taking down a sign. Jadon knew it, I knew it, his mom knew it, and even his younger brothers knew it.
I think this is a necessary transition of life that many people bypass too easily. If you have children, there comes a time when you put up the toys, the balls, and all that goes with it for the last time. Some things you may keep for a lifetime, but to most, you will have to say, “Goodbye” and “Thank You.” I had to let myself grieve the passing of that childhood for Jadon, and so did he. Sure, it was an exciting time ahead, and life was far from over, but this chapter was over.
As a Pastor, I’ve sat in counseling sessions with far too many people who were never aware of this process, or perhaps were so acutely aware of it, they tried to suppress it or ignore it, because they didn’t want to labor through the emotion or trauma associated with it. When that trauma is not dealt with properly, it comes out later as unidentifiable wounds. At that point, we try to deal with those wounds in unhealthy ways. Many couples wake up only years later, look at each other, and realize they don’t know how to live with each other apart from their kids, and sadly, they decide to end their covenant, and split their family. I knew I could not let that happen. So yes, I allowed myself to cry, and to process all of the emotions that came, and I didn’t apologize for it. I knew I would be better and healthier for it down the road. So, taking down the sign that day, would not just be taking down the sign. We all knew it, but it had to happen.
The moment that came right before we took down the sign, was the moment for which I had not planned, and for which I was completely unprepared. We all stood in the driveway. My wife was standing by her car, ready to drive off. My other two boys were in the garage. Jadon stood beside me. These were the last moments. One of the primary reasons Jadon was leaving that day was because he was getting to live out his dream of playing college basketball. It was a dream we had worked on and trained for in that very driveway for most of his life up until this point.
Naturally, and spontaneously, I grabbed a basketball, bounce-passed it to Jadon and said, “Okay, one last shot before you go off to become a college basketball player!” Jadon received the ball, turned to his right, and dribbled around the sidewalk behind the house. Unknown to me at the time, the emotions were beginning to overwhelm him, and he didn’t want any of us to see it. As he turned back toward the goal, he broke, let out a sigh and a loud “Gosh!”, and began to weep, on the spot, ball in his hand.
Everything fell at that moment. His mom stood lifeless at the car, not knowing how to deal with the moment. His two brothers moved up the driveway and toward the yard in the opposite direction. They didn’t want anyone to see the tears running down their faces, so they tried to avoid the scene. I began to weep, and I ran toward Jadon, grabbed him, hugged him, and said, “It’s okay…let it out…all of it. It’s okay.” In a moment frozen in time, we both stood there weeping in each other’s arms. Thankfully, my middle son Ryder was astute enough to catch that moment on camera in a photo. Though I’m thankful for it, the picture doesn’t really do the moment justice.
Not caught on camera, is what happened next. I kid you not, right at the moment that Jadon and I were weeping and hugging, a flock of geese flew over the top of us in the shape of a perfectly formed “V”. They were honking and chirping out to the top of their lungs. I stopped, I looked up at them, and held my arm on Jadon’s shoulder. Jadon stepped forward, and in fitting fashion, swished his last shot in the driveway, and then turned to go get the sign. Through tears, gasps for air, and solemnity, he walked the sign back up the driveway to the garage. It was done. It was epic. Time to turn the page.
For days leading up to and following this moment, multiple people had sent me texts and pictures with a similar theme, “You’ve done your job. It’s time to let them leave the nest, give them wings and let them fly…let them fly like eagles.” I was truly thankful for these notes and their encouragement. I knew they loved me and meant well. It all even looked good on a postcard or GIF, and it even sounded right. After all, eagles are far more majestic than geese…right!? But I have a different posture I am taking on the matter.
I never really viewed my parenting Jadon, or any of my boys to be a job, or even a responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, I know that it is very much a great responsibility, with considerable accountability. But for both myself and my wife, our posture was never, “It’s our job to raise you for 18 years, and then you’re on your own!” We just took it day by day, and showed up to love each other and love our children each day, in the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the easy, and the hard. We have always been their parents, and as far as we’re concerned, though our roles will change and decrease over the years, we will always be their parents. But all of it has never been task-driven, only motivated by an intense love for our boys and overwhelming gratitude to God.
But what of the geese flying in a “V” motion who seemed to interrupt our epic moment that day? Far from interruption, I believe they were sent on mission that day to remind me of an important truth. When geese fly, they fly in a “V” shape for specific reasons. First, it conserves energy because this formation allows for a reduction of wind resistance. In this formation, the birds can fly great distances without stopping or getting tired. It is said that pelicans or eagles who fly alone beat their wings more frequently and have higher heart rates than those birds who fly in formation. Fighter pilots actually fly in formation for many of the same reasons.
The geese take turns being in front and change positions frequently. Some lead and then fall back for others to lead, then they go back up and lead again. All the while, the other birds honk so as to encourage each other to keep going and not give up. The other reason they honk is so that they can keep track of each other and know that everyone is still together, which leads to the second reason for the “V” formation.
In this formation, all of the geese can more easily keep track of each other and make sure no one is lost or left behind. They are constantly communicating, never leaving each other, always encouraging each other, constantly changing lead positions, but always moving together. This is something I have always known because I have used this illustration for sermons concerning how church members should do life together. But the moment that flock of geese flew over Jadon and I, I knew, even though it didn’t sound as majestic, this isn’t eagles leaving nests, this is geese, just changing positions.
Jadon will always be my son. He will always have a home with me. The frontal lobe of his brain isn’t even fully developed yet. He still needs me to be a parent. I will never stop being his dad. Sure, responsibilities and accountabilities change, grow, and deepen, but I will always be his dad. He’s not flying away on his own, we’re just starting to change positions in the flock. Now, he is getting to experience what it’s like to be out front, and I am learning what it’s like to move to the back and cheer. There will still be times when I need to move back out in front, and now, there will be more times when I need to move to the back. But together, we both still fly.
Lord willing, there will come a time when we add to the flock. There will be other geese from other flocks who will join our flock, and vice versa. Lord willing, there will even be little goslings who come along and join the flock, but together we all still fly. I will move further and further to the rear of the flock, but I will be ready for that when it comes, and I will still continue to cheer and honk with the best of them. But together, we all still fly. There are no empty nests, and no flying in isolation. We are one flock, relying on each other…always have been, always will be, and that will not change.
One day, my time will come to leave the earthly flock and I’ll get a new set of wings. Old signs will come down and new signs will be put up. Tears will be shed and epic moments shared. Memories will hold us together, until we are united together again in the heavenly flock, where we will fly higher than we have ever flown before. And there, we will talk about the day when geese flew over our house, and reminded us that no one flies in isolation, that we are one flock, and we’ll thank God that every moment before, in between and after that day was knit together in God’s perfect plan of formation.