My father was ten days away from his sixtieth birthday when I sat – not yet twenty myself – in the back seat of the family Chevrolet on the entrance day assigned for my seminary class.
Each summer the anniversary of that drive looms, a drive with my parents on hot Louisiana highways to a rural seminary. Each August I expect the invitation to reflection. I never resist the reflection nor fear it. It is, in fact, a yearly challenge and even a delight to which I look forward.
The significance of the day derives from what I was finally stepping out of, a life at home that had not been easy. The significance of the day also derives from what I was getting ready to try, a life that I might still be leading if later discernment had not directed me elsewhere.
Where I got to do that reflecting this August 14 was new. The windows of my second-floor apartment were open to a drier New England morning than we have had for most of the summer. The neighborhood streets were quiet. After breakfast and coffee, I settled in an armchair that I had selected just for this living room. Despite its arrival two months ago, I had not yet spent a Saturday morning in it.
How had my father prepared for that drive almost forty years ago? I am barely two years away from the age he was that August morning. By this point in my own life, I know my patterns and my rhythms, my predilections and habits. I know there is nothing more natural for me than to review my life before milestone events and on anniversary occasions, to muse on it, to write about it, to sit before its surprises and directions. Two years in that rural Louisiana seminary may have taught me how and why to do that kind of reflecting – even, in some circumstances, how long to do it.
I do not know how my father went about facing the departure of another son from his household. We did not have a long conversation – father to son – about my decision. I wish I could say it was customary to hear my mother say to him, “Come, talk to me. You know this is an important moment in our lives as parents. When you get quiet like this, I know you’re mulling things over. Tell me about it.”
Like me, my father had an understated way of suggesting that things with him were all just fine. Like me, though, and like any of us, he could have used some patient prodding. He could have used a listener who knew how to get him to talk.
He could have used some help that August day forty years ago.
I could have, too.