Can’t Live With ’em, Can’t Live Without ’em

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By Mike O’Brien

This column is dedicated to the memory of the young people from Northern California who have given their lives in the service of the United States armed forces. I realize that parental longing and worry about a grown child happily relocating to begin a new life is trivial when compared to the fears of a parent whose child is in harm’s way in Iraq or Afghanistan.

July 2005: It was late; we were tired and lost again on the New Jersey Turnpike. For four long days, my 22-year-old son, Sean, and I had combed the summer-seared Garden State countryside looking for a suitable apartment for him. He was beginning a new job and life thousands of miles from home. When (and if) I found our motel that never-ending night, that would signal the end of another day of pursuing the required approvals, licenses, permits, deposits, furnishings and foodstuffs he would need.

Returning from a seven-hour odyssey, which was supposed to have been a simple, three-hour jaunt to Ikea, the giant Swedish home furnishings store (which will open a branch in West Sacramento in 2006), we were at the end of our ropes, without dinner, after having run errands the entire day. Ikea’s mix-ups had cost us at least two hours, and getting lost twice added another couple to our trip. As I chastised myself for not including a navigation system in my car rental agreement, Sean worked his cell phone, finally succeeding in convincing Comcast to install service days before they had said they could. “Oh, thank you!” he said. “Yes, I do have one more question: My father wants to know if your service includes some excellent religious programs?” He shoved his fist into his mouth to muffle his laughter, and I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t succumb to weary giddiness.

So it happened that our boy left home, seemingly for real this time. His mother and I had missed him the four years he had lived an hour away on his college campus, but this was different; the distance too far, the career plans too real. It’s funny how our children become adults and grow independent, yet frequently count on us and often drive us crazy.

So while his mother stayed home with our teenage daughter, I took on the task of helping Sean get settled. Despite the drudgery involved, our journey was a special time. While we explored this new place, my son and I came to better know each other’s dreams, fears, even some political views and secrets. We shared our deep sadness about the passing of his maternal grandpa, who had died unexpectedly less than a year earlier. We spoke of how excited Pop-pop would have been for his grandson. We shared laughter and arguments during our travels, and a couple of beers in our room at the Inn at Pennytown Motel in Pennington. On occasion, our differences irritated each other: My directional challenges bugged him, and his-late night TV and rap music selections grated on me. All in all, however, we were very compatible. And each day, my sense of dread grew about leaving him behind.

Sean’s new job was one he prized and had begun preparing for years before, as he took an early liking to the stock markets. He had landed a good position at a New Jersey call center operated by Merrill Lynch, one of the world’s largest brokerage firms. He was delightedÑit doesn’t get much better for a parent than to have an delighted child. But after we got in our motel beds late each night, I’d reflect back on the years Sean lived with us and how quickly they had passed. Late on the night before I left for my flight home, we went to the grocery store to stock up his new kitchen. As I watched our big guy drive away in his now-loaded car, eager to get underway on his own, I realized that this was it: He was out of the nest. The preset oldies station on the AM radio in my rental car began to play The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” A tear came to my eye.