Like a bird that flies south not even knowing for sure why he’s doing it, every spring around the end of April I hop on plane and head to the SMU campus in Dallas.
I started an event a bunch of years back for the seniors in a fraternity that’s at my daughters’ campus. “Senior Night” has evolved into a wonderful tradition in this house where every year about 40 seniors and their dads, in coat and ties, have a ‘father and son’ graduation a few weeks before the university’s pomp and circumstances.
Every year, it’s the same rhythm. It takes place in a quiet, elegant room in a private Dallas dinner club. Each of the seniors stand up during dinner and make a toast to their best friends, and to their fathers – on who they were, who they are, and where they’re going.
For many of the seniors and dads, it’s wonderfully very emotional. Every year it’s so interesting to watch these young men (and many of their dads) express things in that moment they may have never said out loud to their friends, fathers, or sons before.
In the ‘cool down’ drink after the event, a senior came up to me thanking me for ‘moderating’ this event, and asked a simple question. He said, “You don’t have a son in this fraternity, and you fly down here to do this for a bunch of strangers? How come?”
He asked me a real question, and I’m sure I said something brilliant like, “Because you guys are the greatest,” with a shit-eating grin on my face, and probably gave the kid the fraternity grip.
So here I am, sitting on the plane heading back to California, thinking about what the answer should have been.
I think I go there each spring to fill a bit of a hole in my soul. At the time, when I graduated from college at U. of Kentucky, I had no interest in sitting on the 36 yard-line with 6,765 other graduates in rented costumes and listening to somebody I never heard of yakking about how I should reach for my dreams.
So before that was going to happen, I just hopped in my puke-green, rusty-old Mazda GLC with a zillion miles and memories – and drove away.
I drove away from the home of so many incredible buddies that shared such a rich, wild and full ride of college life. I drove away from a girlfriend that taught me about how spectacular it is to love somebody, and for someone to love you back. I drove away from a place that was a bottomless treasure chest of learning that ripped open my mind to the wonders of science, literature, mythology, the behavioral sciences — and the arts.
The gears were shifting down as I went from the hustle of packing up and shoving my life in that clunker car, to backing out of my fraternity house driveway, to passing my university out the car window – and to smelling and tasting and hearing the green grass whistling in the wind under the white picket fences of the Kentucky horse farms.
As the horse farms disappeared and as I merged onto the highway, after a moment – it emotionally hit me. I didn’t know why I was so overcome, but I knew something was profoundly shifting in my journey.
By the time I drove into my home town eight hours later in La Grange, Illinois, I had cut the umbilical cord from my childhood — and I found myself being swept up in the air of an arctic stream that would be my muse to carry me to the next world of my adventure in California.
Back to the answer to the question the kid asked me. Why did I get those kids and dads in a room?
I suppose it’s because I didn’t have a definitive moment to let go of my college relationships, and I’m hoping this event opens the door to that for these young men and their dads. I think there’s value in definitively letting go of things; forcing you to stretch out for new branches and see if they can support you – when, often times, you don’t even know those branches were there.
I suppose it’s because I believe saying goodbye to places, and people, and experiences are nature’s first steps, mortality’s baby steps, to subtly prepare us for ultimately saying goodbye to life. Maybe it’s first steps to ultimately letting go of this amazing, rich, fun, painful, exciting, rewarding roller coaster of life we’re so incredibly lucky and blessed to ride.
If we take the time to recognize endings along the way, and if we’re willing to emotionally digest the fragility, pain and humility in these moments, maybe we’re tasting truths about who we were, who we are, and where we think we’re going.
I recently was a voyeur to watching my father-in-law, that I adored, drift over a few days into a coma – and imagined how, in those last lucid moments, he was handicapping the odds of if there was a God and where he would be about to board a wonderful train –or whether the last stop on this trip is in an urn on a bookcase.
My feeling is that no matter what you’re saying goodbye to – whether it’s an important relationship, an important chapter in your life, or to a tie that’s had its days – on some level, we’re yanked out of the race of the day and slowed down to appreciate how nice the trip has been.
When we say goodbye to a tie, we’re not saying goodbye to the tie. But to who we were when we wore it.
I’m reminded of standing on the bridge in Monet’s backyard in Giverny, France, and hearing about his perspective on describing what he tried to draw… He was fascinated with how the rays of light between our eyes and an image is what we actually ‘see’ – and how what we see has little to do with what the image actually ‘is.’ That’s why he said he enjoyed drawing the same images over and over again. He said he wasn’t trying to capture what the image looked like – but trying to capture the rays of light in the space between his eyes – and the image.
I supposed we do that naturally – when look at old college pictures, or ties – or urns.
So when that kid looked at me in his coat and tie, and gin and tonic in his hand, and ask me why I do it – I suppose the answer is because I’m trying to draw the rays of light – that look, and smell, and taste and feel very different from what’s going on in the room.