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Sad goodbye, suitably Monty Python

SEEING the eldest off at the airport is rather odd, as it turns out.

In a strange way, we are as excited as if we are the ones about to fly 5,000 miles to a college surrounded by giant Redwoods and surf dudes. For much of the early-morning drive, we chatter and joke, a little too exuberantly, ignoring the sleep that's still in our eyes.

"You'll go through American immigration right here in Dublin," I tell him, tapping the wheel.

"I know," he says, like this is the umpteenth time I've said it.

I rack my brains for more worldly wisdom as we climb the ramp of the parking garage, but I can think of nothing and so resort to paraphrasing 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', something we do when there's nothing left to say.

"But before they let you through security," I tell him in the rear view mirror, "you must answer these questions three…"

"Question the first!" he grins, without missing a beat.

"What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?" I say, mimicking the crackly voice of the guardian on the Bridge of Death in the film, as I park the car.

"African or European?" he chuckles, undoing his seatbelt.

"Aaaaaaaaaagh!" We do this bit together - where the bridgekeeper in the movie is flung into the sky - as we're getting out of the car and his mother and I wrestle his suitcase and bag out of the back.

I'm all out of script by the time we reach the departure gate, and he's out of time.

"I should go through," he says.

If there's a moment, as a dad, that I should probably come up with something important to say, this is doubtless it. I watch dumbly as his mother hugs him. It's ages before she lets go. He looks at me. I reach out and ruffle his hair, which is fluffy and freshly washed and I wonder briefly how much he'll change before the next time I see him.

"You'll love California," is all I manage.

We watch him for a moment as people mill around at the lines for security, then we turn and trudge back the way we came, against the steady stream of luggage-laden travellers. I stop for a second and pat all my pockets, looking for something that I suddenly feel I've lost, but all I find is an old, red bandana.

I hand it to his mother to dry her eyes.

Back at the little tourist office we run in the town, we go about our day as best we can. This mostly entails displaying the Flight Tracker web page all afternoon and watching the little aeroplane icon move imperceptibly slowly along a transatlantic dotted line.

"Do you think he's eaten yet?" I say in a daze at the screen.

"I wonder if he's wearing the neck pillow I gave him," says my wife wistfully.

"Eh, excuse me," says someone with a backpack and a thick German accent, appearing around the door.

I hold up one hand without looking up and put a finger to my lips as we watch the tiny plane icon finally reach the coast of what looks like Newfoundland, then we give a little cheer.

"Ahem," says the person waiting.

"Do we know if he got a window seat?" I say, still squinting at the outline of Canada on screen.

The backpacker gives up and joins us on the other side of the desk. "He would have to be on the right," drawls the German, pointing. We're all now fixated on the tiny plane icon, mesmerized.

"Why?" I say, raising a biscuit slowly to my mouth and munching one corner, then, as an afterthought, offering the packet to the stranger, who raises an eyebrow, grunts and takes one. "For the view," he continues. "Even if he has a window seat, he must be on the right, facing forward, to see anything of remote interest."

"Ahhh," I nod, munching, then frowning as I notice the man beside me for the first time like he's someone who's just wandered into our living room.

"Is there something I can DO for you?" I say.

We follow the eldest's progress all day, never tiring of the tiny dotted line's painstaking progress, even when we go home and continue watching it there.

When he stops over at Philadelphia, he makes brief contact, sending us a photo of the in-flight meal he had.

"It looks like a slice of pizza," I coo. "Look, there are three little bites out of it." I say, zooming in.

"I can see part of his knee!" laments my wife.

I track the flight's onward progress until it's somewhere over Colorado and I can't keep my eyes open any longer. The last thing I think about as I slip my hands under the pillow is that last sight of the little aeroplane icon's almost imperceptible progress over such a giant country.

"Colorado," I yawn dreamily. "Wow."

When I get up in the morning and run downstairs to the computer, there is no dotted line any more. Our eldest has landed, disembarked and is now somewhere on the west coast of the great continent of North America; a little piece of us, straining under the weight of his luggage, alone and untracked.

I touch the screen.

"Stay safe," I say, a day late. "And enjoy every minute of your adventure."