“I ran away the day I was born. It was because I heard father and mother talking about what I was to be when I became a man.”
— Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie
Watching your children grow up is a special joy. It can also be traumatic. Why traumatic? Today is my son’s birthday, meaning my youngest child is now 30!
It’s one of those life events that put it all in perspective.
I was working hard and late into the night at a newspaper job when Aaron was small, and by then, Mary had returned to teaching. She’d get herself and the girls ready for school, then, just as they’d walk out the door, I’d stumble out of bed after just 3-4 hours of sleep. Someone had to watch Aaron.
There he was, the young master in rubber pants. He’d be sitting on the floor, surrounded by toys and watching television when I entered the room. I’d collapse onto the sofa and pass out long before Mister Rogers had finished proclaiming it a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
After awhile, some sixth sense would cause my eyes to snap open, and there would be my little boy, quiet as a mouse, staring at me while I slept. Instant guilt trip. Little boys care nothing about your lack of sleep, they only want to know why you’re not playing with them.
I’d roll off the couch and flop onto the floor like a dead fish. Aaron would play with his toys while I tried to remember what planet I was on and when I’d arrived.
The clanking bell of the Fisher-Price fire station door would eventually rouse me to the point that I knew I had to move. I’d get up, dress myself and my boy in decent clothes, then we’d finally go out to face the day.
We’d do guy things, like drive to the switching yard to watch the trains, or out to the airport to watch the planes, but all too soon it was time to go home and get ready for work, another late night, and a repeat of the cycle.
Children are very observant, so possibly it was because I was working too much and didn’t play with him enough, or maybe it was seeing me staggering around like a zombie all those mornings, but it seemed my son decided early that he didn’t want that kind of rat race for himself.
Aaron had a little bit of Peter Pan in him — he didn’t want to grow up.
Where fatherhood was concerned, I swore I’d be better than my own dad, but in truth I was no better. I grew impatient with Aaron, just like my father was always impatient with me. I discovered that when you’re the father of a boy, it’s very easy to want him to grow up faster than he’s capable of doing. I would sometimes have thoughts like these, then hate myself for it later:
“Why can’t he tie his own shoes yet?”
“Why can’t he play with this HO-gauge train instead of those big clunky trains for babies?”
“Why can’t he catch the ball? I can’t toss it any slower!”
What was making me push him? Why did I have to be such a jerk?
Maybe it’s because I felt my own childhood draining away. Maybe I just wanted my son to like the same things I liked before it was time for me to move from middle age into more appropriate old-man pursuits. In truth, maybe I was bitter that I had too many responsibilities and could no longer acknowledge that little bit of Peter Pan that lived inside me, too.
For his own part, Aaron seemed to resist growing up as long as he could. With the wisdom of hindsight, I now say good for him! But at the time, it was a different story. I was frustrated and worried that my large-sized son seemed to have no prospects and no direction.
Then one day it happened. Aaron decided on his own that it was time to start growing up. In rapid-fire succession he first told me he was joining the U.S. Navy, then that he was getting married, then that he was buying a house, and finally that he had fathered a child, my granddaughter, little Zoe. All of it seemed to happen overnight.
Today Aaron is 30 — not exactly old and not exactly young — and he’s set aside his childhood toys. Now he rides a war machine that is big, fast and deadly.
I can’t tell my submariner “happy birthday” because I don’t even know where he is, though I presume he and his shipmates aboard the USS Nevada are doing their lonely and dangerous duty somewhere beneath the world’s vast oceans.
If I could speak to him, I’d say that I love him, and that I’m as proud as a father can be. I’d tell him to look aft through his periscope, but to not be sad if he sees Neverland fading in the distance. It’s just the nature of things. It’s what Peter Pan sees when he’s grown into a man.