Last Sunday, my fifteen year old son Will hugged me goodbye and took off for an evening bike ride as I cleaned up the last of our Easter dishes. I don’t know what made me look at the clock when he left, but I remember being pleased that the sun was still shining so late in the day. Minutes then turned into hours, and as the sun dipped below the horizon line my panic level rose. He had, at that point, been gone for over two and a half hours, had left without a helmet or identification, and his phone was going straight to voice mail. My mind flew from believing he would walk in the door at any minute to sickening thoughts of him lying unconscious in the dark (or worse) . And just as my husband unearthed his bike from the garage to search for him, he came home.
The sobs that erupted from my chest startled both of us. I hugged him tighter and longer than I had in ages, and, for a moment, I think he truly understood the depths of parental love. He surprised me as well. I expected him to laugh at my outpouring of emotion, but instead he reassured me that he would never scare me like that again. If only he could keep that promise.
He has grown from little boy to full-fledged teen in the blink of an eye. I can’t believe it’s been almost a decade since I ran behind him holding onto the seat of his two-wheeler! Letting go of that bike and watching him speed away was the first time I recall thinking I wouldn’t be able to shield him from danger forever. But I am so proud of the fine young man he has become, and have confidence in the choices he will make to keep himself out of harm’s way.
Below is the eloquent letter John Steinbeck wrote to his teenage son, Thom, after learning he had fallen in love. While away at boarding school, Thom wrote to his father and step-mother seeking advice regarding his feelings for a girl named Susan. Steinbeck’s response brims with thoughtfulness, wisdom, and honesty, as well as respect and love for his son. The words have always stuck with me (that beautiful last line!), but they returned in a meaningful way this week while thinking about how I will maintain a strong, steadying presence in Will’s life as he transitions into adulthood. I can’t hold onto his bike seat forever.
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
*from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters