A little ditty about Zach and Da Bean, my two oldest children, who have done their growing up in the heartland and are now embarking on their own adult lives. Zach has been working for his Uncle Rob as a "Tree Monkey" in western Nebraska this summer, but he is home for a week before heading off to the Lone Star State for his freshman year at Sam Houston (which is, confusingly enough for us northerners, not in Houston but Huntsville). He's eighteen, and I just don't know anymore what to think. He's taller than I am, stronger and more muscular than I've ever been. To say that he is intelligent would be a gross understatement; more than that, he's also thoughtful, conscientious and considerate. He's a kindhearted gentleman and a fun-loving big brother. The whole family agreed that seeing him this past month (even though briefly) was the highlight of our vacation. It would be difficult to describe the joy, the bliss, the rapture of his younger siblings when I brought Zachary home from the airport in Chicago. Conversely, sending him off to college in a week will make for a sad bunch around here.
We've had a little more time and opportunity, over the past few years, to adjust to our Beanie growing up. She still manages to take my breath away with all that she has going on in her life. She's just finished her second year of college at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she has worked so diligently and done so very well. Now she's looking "in love" and all engaged, as she and Sam make plans for their nuptials in May of 2008. Between now and then she'll turn 21, and by that point she'll be living in Fort Wayne and continuing her college education at IPFW. I doubt that even Professor Trelawney would have spotted that one in her crystal ball a year ago!
When my wife LaRena and I got a little carried away with our matchmaking plans for one of our young friends recently, her mother urged us to consider that "she's only 16." Uh-huh. I remember when my Beanie Belle turned sweet sixteen. It feels like just a week or two ago. I took her out to eat at TGI Fridays, where they tied balloons in her long curly hair and gathered around our table to sing their birthday song to her. She'll always be my "little girl," and there was that childlike twinkle in her eyes and grin on her face (which are still not altogether gone, especially when she's talking about Sam and their wedding plans), but even then I could see that she was a young woman with her feet on the ground and reaching for the stars. Daddies can't stop their little girls from growing up, and they shouldn't try, but it's a bittersweet thing to behold. DoRena knows that, in my mind's eye, she's still my blue-eyed, golden-haired one-year-old, crouching down on her haunches to watch the progress of a bug across the sidewalk. All the intervening years are like a blur, like watching a video in fast forward. My young friend is "only 16," but my own daughter was "only 16," once upon a time - surely it was only yesterday - and now she's almost 21, and almost married, and her days under my roof are only visits anymore.
My wife and I are not alone in dealing with this stage of life, as various friends also see their children off to school and give their daughters away in marriage. There is some real comfort in knowing that others are experiencing much the same mixed emotions that we are. There is joy and excitement and godly pride and a deep sense of satisfaction in seeing our children grow up, but also a profound sense of loss and separation as we undergo this transition in our lives. You don't get back the years that have already gone by, whether you've used them wisely and well or let the opportunities slip through your fingers. I cherish the memories, and I savor the time I am given in the present, knowing that life is going to keep on pressing forward at its pace.
Along with the comfort of friends, with whom we are able to share these things and commiserate, there are two things in particular that have given me peace in "letting" my Zach and DoRena grow up and move away. The first is the knowledge, which my good friend Tim expressed so well at his daughter Lynea's wedding earlier this summer, that becoming independent adults is the very thing that we've been preparing our children to do all along, and it is exactly what they are supposed to do. Not simply moving out of the house, but receiving new vocations and stations in life, in which they will confess their faith and serve their neighbors in love. How can I not rejoice to see my children enter upon those thresholds, which the Lord Himself has prepared for them, and to which He now calls them. All the more so, as I observe that my two oldest children are growing into all of this so very beautifully and handsomely and well. They continue to educate their minds, to develop and hone their useful skills, and to live by faith in the Word and Sacraments of Christ their Lord. These are all answers to prayer, the gifts and blessings of their true Father in heaven.
The other source of peace and comfort that I have found, is that my next oldest children, Nicholai and Monica, have really begun to come into their own with their big siblings out of the house. It has dawned on me that this is also part of the way that things are supposed to work. Zach and DoRena have always had this special place within our family and household, which is to be expected, of course, but it has also meant that their younger brothers and sisters have lived in their shade, so to speak. There's a certain sadness in the realization that they will not be on hand to watch their youngest siblings growing up, but there is this necessary process of development. As the older children become adults, the other children take their turns in "ruling the roost," becoming Mom's and Dad's helpers and extra pairs of arms. Anyway, I've been pleased by the way that Nicholai, in particular, has already assumed this new role as the big brother at home, and I know that it has been a good thing for him.
I've been reminded, this past week, that even youth is not invulnerable. A stroke, a crime, an accident, or a million other dangers can change everything in the blink of an eye. Our life on earth is temporal and precarious, fragile and finite. "Take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife," that's not ludicrous hyperbole. It is not only college or marriage that may take our children from us. Yet, we do not live in fearful trepidation, but in repentance and faith and the fear of the Lord. We receive with thanksgiving what He bestows; we do what we are given to do in faith and love; and we commend ourselves, our bodies and souls and all we have, daily into the hands of our dear Father in heaven. Clinging desperately to that which He has graciously given becomes a kind a idolatry, while despairing over that which He takes away is yet another kind of unbelief. It is rank foolishness to "eat, drink and be merrry" in our own self-righteousness, but the height of wisdom to "eat, drink and be merry" in faith, in the freedom of the Gospel and the righteousness of Christ.
My advice for other parents is this: enjoy your children while you have the opportunity; catechize them in the faith for as long as they are in your care (they are never too young or too old for the Word of God and prayer); teach them what they need to know for life in this world, and train them by your word and example for adulthood, marriage and families of their own; listen to what they have to say, and do not hesitate to speak what's in your heart and on your mind to tell them; forgive their sins, wherever they have done wrong, and confess your sins against them, wherever you have failed them or fallen short. And hold on to sixteen as long as you can; changes come around real soon, make them women and men.