When we first moved into our current house, the Lovely Mrs Smith, perhaps a little too impressed with my almost complete semester of a junior college art class, asked me to paint a mural in the hallway.
It turned out about like you'd expect, somewhere between "good" and what you get when you turn your back on a toddler with finger paints. But it's grown on us, and until we decide to redo the whole place or someone else gets to make the call on the house's color scheme, it remains.
The painting is of a tree - literally a "family tree" (OK, so much for subtlety) with each of our children depicted as birds in some stage of leaving the nest.
While on occasion that may have seemed like wishful thinking, the reality is time has done its thing and they have all actually, you know, left.
However, since the oldest three have elected to make lives in the area, "left" just means we don't have to feed them as often and we have no one to blame for that mess in the kitchen. Maybe it actually was elves ...
So while it may be true that we can no longer see our children the way we could when they were under our roof (usually taking up the entire sofa or protruding from the refrigerator), doing so would take 20 minutes, tops, depending on traffic on I-49 and what their plans were.
That, it seems, is about to change. In a few short weeks, our youngest will both graduate from college and commission into the US Army on the same day, an economy of scheduling that comes as a result of covid. A few months later he'll be off for training and then, after the first of the year, to the other side of the world.
One of the birds will almost literally fly from the nest.
I've thought about that day, the approaching hugs and tears and goodbyes and stiff upper lips, a lot. It's what he wants and has wanted virtually all his life so it's not like we haven't had that entire lifetime to prepare.
But "coming" and "here" are two very different things. And only one of them is real.
I always believed I'd handle it better than my wife. I'm a military brat so the idea of watching a receding figure climb on a transport plane is at least in my experience, if not my wheelhouse.
But I'm beginning to realize that experience leaves me only slightly better prepared for what's coming. I know what's going to happen and it's still going to hurt.
There are all sorts of "coping mechanisms we're employing. It's what he always wanted to do. It's important work. It's only a year. Or two. Or more.
We console ourselves with the idea it will just be like college, where teenage boys disappear for four years, returning long enough to eat, do laundry and then disappear again.
Except we know it won't be. There is an entire life out there only he will know of, only he will understand. A real world, not the pretend world of academia where all is rehearsal for the future. For him and us, the future is now.
It's scant comfort to acknowledge we aren't alone. It's that time of year and parents across the area and the country are coming to grips with the reality that their sense of pride in their children's accomplishments is tempered by their sense of loss.
It's long been my understanding that the goal of any successful parent is to work yourself out of a job, to move (somewhat) seamlessly from director of your child's life to advisor. But even "seamless" transition isn't the same thing as painless.
And its hard to be an advisor when the only thing you know about what your child does on a day-to-day basis is somewhat vague, you've never been where he's going and even if you wanted to offer that advise, you can't really call him because you're not sure if it's 14 hours ahead of our time or it's next Tuesday. He'll have to tell us if he's happy and we'll have to take his word for it.
I walk by that mural in the hallway just about every day. So frequently that I've almost quit really seeing it. Pretty soon I'm going to need to break out the paints and make a few adjustments. There are no eggs left in the nest.
And one of the birds has flown far, far away.