I’ve been working on a long-term project related to my alma mater with a fellow alum which results in us chatting on a regular basis, sometimes weekly when we’re in the midst of an important part of the project, sometimes less frequently during lulls.
He called during Christmas Break a few days before my cadet was to head back to Colorado.
Him: “You busy?”
Me: “No, just making dinner for me and Catie.”
Him: “Oh, I didn’t realize she was still there, we can talk later, nothing pressing. When does she leave?”
Me: “Thursday afternoon.”
Him: “OK, so Thursday, two days to be depressed, that sounds about right, doesn’t it? I’ll call Sunday.”
I didn’t argue with him, tacitly agreeing and then hanging up. I recalled that moment early in the movie “Stripes” when Bill Murray’s runway model girlfriend tires of his antics and leaves, capping a truly craptacular day. He lets out the classic line, “then, depression set in” before sliding to sit on the floor.
I feel you, Bill.
Now at this point in my life, I’m a veteran of these goodbyes. From the first miserable I Day experience at the Naval Academy in 2016 to two much less stressful versions at the Air Force Academy to the end of any number of Spring, Winter, and Summer breaks, I’ve had those just-a-little-longer hugs. After my son’s Plebe class finished off their Herndon Climb, the goodbyes got easier. We had a feel for the Academy’s rhythm and the calendar’s cadence, making it easier to predict when we’d see him again.
When Catie started her USAFA journey at the Prep School, we were still in the throes of COVID, which made things more challenging in some ways, but the relative peace of I Day and the assurance of the Prep School Supe made it easier to say goodbye.
Easier, however, does not equal easy. I’ve come to understand that one of the things that made it easier to say goodbye to my son when he returned to USNA was my daughter’s presence. And saying goodbye to her at the Prep School and even the first couple of timed during Doolie year felt “right” because I felt strongly this was the right path for her.
This break, though, while a truly remarkable time, felt different. As I made the ride back from the airport drop-off, I reflected on some of our conversations and began to understand why this goodbye was harder than some recent ones. She’s no longer getting started at the Air Force Academy. We’ve moved beyond the “will she make it through Doolie year?” and “will she survive Recognition?” concerns to focus on much more practical things. Things like her “signing” her 2 for 7s (which I understand USAFA doesn’t really do, but the commitment before junior year is still a thing), service selection, and plans for graduation and life after commissioning.
After commissioning? After commissioning?
As difficult as communication and goodbyes may have been with my son while he was in Annapolis, the dynamic changed dramatically once he entered the fleet and again when he started this first deployment. I did the math (simple though it is) and realized that including her time at the Prep, she was not halfway through her time in Colorado Springs. This goodbye was a turning point.
Once she dropped her bags in her room, she turned a corner and in horseracing terms, entered the backstretch. Plenty of hurdles and challenges lie ahead, but she was no longer a kid wondering if she wanted to be at the academy or if she belonged and what life would be like as an Air Force officer.
The pre-Academy talk about what we would do during Parents Weekends and all the trips we’d make out to the Springs and all the things we’d see while we were out there suddenly narrowed. Five years seemed like so much time but in contrast, two-and-a-half appears to be a nanosecond. And I know this to be true because my son’s last three years at the Naval Academy flew by even with the complicating factor of the COVID pandemic. Each month of these next 2+ years would move by more quickly than the last. The end will arrive all too fast.
As I wallow in the last moments of my self-imposed depression period, I’m focused on the remaining time, knowing I cannot slow time nor control it. I am brought not to “Stripes,” but a much different movie, based on some of my favorite books. It was Gandalf who reminded us: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So as I tuck away the self-pity, I ponder Gandalf’s words and commit to deciding not just what to do with that time but how to make the most of it.