The tragedy of the children who left and who will never come home
Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30
It is 15 summers ago now, but I still remember the tears at Dublin Airport.
We were heading away on our Big J1 Adventure, rucksacks stuffed with summer clothes and Barrys teabags. A clutch of parents waved us off in the departure lounge, forcing themselves into cheery smiles. But their brimming eyes and tear-stained cheeks gave the game away.
I was bemused. Why on earth were they crying? We were heading off to Chicago to have the best summer of our lives. What could possibly be so upsetting about that?
All these years later, and now a parent myself, I finally get it. And in the aftermath of this week's accident in Berkeley, I keep thinking about those tear-stained faces.
When you decide to have a child, as the author Elizabeth Stone once remarked, you decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
And there we were at the airport, merrily boarding a flight to America and blithely taking our poor parents' hearts with us.
Not that we gave that notion much thought as the jet touched down in O'Hare. We were far too excited.
And rightly so. America was like everything we'd seen in the movies - only better.
The streets were wider. The buildings were taller. The cars were bigger. The sky was bluer. The people were louder. The weather was nicer. Everything that happened seemed to be happening for the first time ever.
We found apartments, jobs, and new friends. We waited tables, pulled pints, manned reception desks, sold concert tickets, folded clothes, made beds. We made money. We threw parties. And each tiny thing we accomplished felt like a milestone on the road to real adulthood.
We were emboldened by it all, and invigorated by the endless days and nights of freedom. It was a magical moment in time, suspended between two worlds.
We were no longer children, but we didn't yet have to face the more serious responsibilities of adulthood. Our horizons felt as broad as the distant horizon on Lake Michigan, and those airport tears seemed a very long way away.
Now, when I look at my own little boy, and imagine that one day he might haul a rucksack over his shoulder and wave at me from the far side of a departure lounge, it seems preposterous.
Surely he will never be that self-sufficient? Surely there'll never be a moment when he doesn't need me as much as he does now?
But that's the deal with parenting. For a short time, you are their whole world. And then they go and swap you for a new one. That's why our parents were crying at the airport.
And yet at the same time, they were giving us the biggest gift a parent can bestow: the opportunity to go out into the world and find out who we really were.
As the poet Cecil Day-Lewis puts it so beautifully in 'Walking Away', a reflection on his son's first day at school:
"Selfhood begins with a walking away/
And love is proved in the letting go."
Our parents let us go, and we came back to them at the end of that summer bronzed, full of adventure and stories to tell, full of new ideas and full of optimism.
The tragedy, of course, for the Berkeley parents is that they let their children go, and now they will not return.
But they let them go.
And that was the greatest gift of all.