I love to watch our quiet street come alive when I daven Shacharit on our front porch, bound in my tefillin and enveloped in my tallit. Our next-door neighbors have two adorable kids, the oldest a loquacious blonde with a favorite game. I watch him try, often successfully, to run away from his house and down the street while his panicked nanny chases him and screams epithets in Spanish. Every day he gets a little farther and she screams a little louder.
My brothers and I did a similar thing with our dad. We’d stand in front of his oversized leather easy chair and he’d trap us between his knees whispering, “Run away!” We’d wait for the trap to open and before we could charge out of his grasp, he’d grab us with his enormous hands and whisk us back where we started. Every third or fourth time, we’d actually escape, sometimes with too much velocity, and crash to the floor. We’d pick ourselves up, stop laughing and try again.
Of course, I performed the same shenanigans with my own precious offspring. When they grew bigger, I made an art form out of chasing them around the house. Any “Soap Soup” fans know our game of “Run Away (Before I Grab You)” as memorialized in the song by the same name. When I caught them, I would emit a primordial growl as I prepared to devour them limb from limb. Then I would freeze and count, “five, four, three, two, RUN,” thereby giving them time to escape. As they grew older and could outrun me, I devised a corollary to the game called Anger Bottle. I would drink most of the water out of a twelve-ounce plastic bottle and then huck it at them with all my might. I would leave just enough liquid to serve as ballast, so it would scare the pants off them as it struck the wall where their heads were moments before. I hurled insults in my best pirate tongue and we’d run until we were too sweaty or until someone got hurt. Neighborhood kids still come over asking me to terrorize them with my handy bottle of Arrowhead.
I’m describing the evolution of this chase because the rules have shifted once again. After high school, our kids ran away from home. As far from their parents as they could get. They didn’t quite cut the cord completely. We’re still paying the bills. But they ventured to the Middle East and beyond and their flesh and blood presence was replaced by an occasional, ephemeral text or call. I, too, left home at seventeen. I was fiercely independent and confident, with a love for travel and the great outdoors. I blithely left my three brothers and dear parents to deal with the impact of my disappearance from the family dynamic. I was busy with Berklee College of Music in Boston, new friends and summer piano jobs in Montana and Greece. I never stopped loving and appreciating my mishpacha, but I only connected with postcards from the road. When my son Max was sixteen, we already felt the gravity of his imminent departure. We started a countdown to his senior year and watched him mature into an independent citizen of the world as he left for a year and half in Israel and then college in New York.
During his teenage years, Max started hiding, creating his own sense of self away from the shadow cast by his doting parents. In a song from my “Fatherhood” album written for him, I have a line summing up this new chapter: “I could hold your hand in front of all your friends, then I became an idiot.” This new dynamic meant that when Max welcomed his gang over every Shabbat afternoon, he’d hint, not too subtly, I find my own friends to play with.
Jesse, son number two, was affectionate and demonstrative well into his mid-teens. He was as easygoing as Max was willful, never too busy to join me for a hike or a walk around the block. He reassured me and my wife Shira that as a rich doctor he would build us a retirement guesthouse on his expansive property. This dynamic also changed. Around the age of sixteen, on our way to a family friend’s Bar Mitzvah, Jesse warned us that we were not allowed to dance. Max chimed in, “don’t even talk.” Thankfully, Sarah was still willing to party with us on the dance floor while her brothers cowered in shame. Soon she, too, entered the dreaded individuation stage with a passion and left us in the dust, feeble and unneeded.
My kids used to clamor for bedtime stories. They would fight over who got to have me in which room. I made up the narratives every night from scratch; fully realized adventures, mysteries, tales of spiritual rendezvous. They would each give me two random nouns which I incorporated into the story line. I accepted this challenge to keep their curiosity piqued throughout the dozen minutes of drama. I owed them a dollar if I forgot their word and I rarely messed up. Max stopped asking for stories when he hit fifteen. No longer would he volunteer words to be included in the tale and at one point, during the spinning of an especially intricate yarn, I caught him underneath his covers wearing his headphones. Like clockwork, the age of fifteen was also the bedtime ritual cutoff for the other two kids. Thanks to my mother’s insistence, I started recording the stories back in 2007. When my youngest turned fifteen in 2014, the fountain ran dry, but not before over 1,200 tales filled the inventory. Fodder for my grandkids, I suppose.
Back when all our children lived under our roof, I had an epiphany during a camping trip in awe-inspiring Kings Canyon, CA. I hiked with dear friends along a wild river on a blue-sky day, occasionally soaking in glimmering pools replete with fallen sequoia diving boards. After a few hours of sunning and strolling, we felt at one with the flow, physically and mentally relaxed, hearts open. That is, until I reinjured my leg while frolicking in the shallows. Thankfully, I was able to cool it down in the current while my friends commiserated with me. A maddening series of questions coiled in my brain: how would I get back to our campsite? How long would it take to heal? Why now? Why me?
A few weeks earlier, I had pulled a calf muscle while skateboarding with Max. After watching the X Games athletes compete at L.A.’s Staples Center, Max and I did some freestyle on our own, soaring down the slopes of an urban parking garage. We slalomed multiple laps down a dozen stories. I challenged my boy, shouting, “Go for it, Max!” Toward the end of our adventure, I felt my leg spasm in an agonizing split second—a deep muscle pull that took weeks to heal.
One of my friends on the camping trip explained her belief that revisiting the same trauma indicated there was still a lesson to learn. She patiently prodded me to share what was weighing on my mind. After listing my pressing business concerns, I hit the mother lode: I was grappling with Max’s imminent departure to college. How was my injured calf connected to this transition in my life?
Shira and I were coming to terms with the realization that there would soon be a vacant chair at our dinner table. Then another kid would leave, then another. We were anticipating the silence of the empty nest, and my reaction was to greedily hold on to each moment. I was taking more photos than ever, packing in memorable activities and filling my son’s head with advice.
As I dipped my hand into the river, water poured through the cracks between my fingers and continued its inevitable descent. In an instant, clarity washed over me. I blurted out, “I’m trying to hold onto my kids like I’m trying to hold onto this water.” I was hopelessly attempting to stop the flow of time. I sobbed tears of sadness and then relief as I acknowledged the pain I had been carrying inside. Perhaps the physical contraction in my calf was metaphorically representing the emotional contraction of holding onto my children. Remarkably, once I acknowledged the connection, the discomfort slowly subsided.
Our children are leaving to spend time in Israel, go to college, find jobs, marry and propagate the species, God willing. That’s what we want! Parents are like archers, pulling back the bow with all our strength and launching our treasured offspring into the fray, using the best aim we can muster. Then they are flying. Separating from us. Soaring. They will follow their own voice, make their mark on the world, stand on their own two feet. Hopefully, they are perched on our proverbial shoulders with as expansive a view as we can provide. Perhaps, at a time of indecision, they will hear an inner voice saying, “Go for it!”
To stop the circle of life from spinning is like trying to dam up a rushing river. One can pile stones in a Sisyphean rage…or go with the flow. Our sages teach us to be “supple like the river reed.” A dry, brittle twig will break under pressure. Instead, we can remain fluid, open and available. Peaceful and joyful. Just like the Kings River as it descends effortlessly towards the Pacific.
The Talmud’s advice to parents of children reaching adulthood discusses the importance of teaching them a trade. Initiating children into the world of honest work and helping them marshal their aptitudes is seen as mandatory in Judaism. God created a system where our sense of accomplishment is based on our ability to earn cash in order to eat. The pressure of fiscal survival forces emotional and intellectual growth. God rewards our effort with spiritual currency: career satisfaction, our unique talents, our lifespan and the gift of family and friends.
Hopefully, our children move out of our homes but not our lives, and then God willing, grandchildren will follow. Shira and I are toasting our newfound liberty…we just took our first vacation as a couple in recent memory. Admittedly, it’s hard to replace the heady sensation of always being in demand when the kids competed for our attention. I also miss the youthful tumult filling our household when my kids’ friends would crowd their bedrooms. I wish I had a freeze frame or at least a slow motion button on the video of my life. I believe our offspring’s disappearance from our daily dynamic teaches that the only constant in life is change. Their departure prepares us for losses of all kinds.
I’d like to offer a blessing to parents everywhere: “those that sow in tears will reap with joy” (Tehillim 126:5). May all those years of heroic effort be amply rewarded. Show overflowing love to your children and maximize precious opportunities to be together. Do it while you can. Remember that even the challenging times with teenagers are precious. Take your spouse out on a regular date night so when the house empties out, you remember what one another looks like. Embrace the change of seasons, grow with the flow, let go and let God. In the immortal words of James Taylor, “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel, things are going to work out fine if you only will.”