Even at the tender age of nine, it was evident that our middle child had an aptitude for things mechanical. So when the neighbors weren't around, I'd let Collin mow the lawn with the big green tractor. When he was perched high in the seat, maneuvering adeptly around trees and shrubs, he was as happy as a puppy in an open field.
He was happy, that is, until the afternoon the engine choked and died, wrapping him in a plume of black smoke. "Dad," he groaned, "when was the last time you checked the oil?"
I was busted -- by a nine-year-old. I'd neglected the engine and I'd destroyed his beloved tractor. That memory and many more came flooding back to me last week as I watched him packing up to go to college.
Throughout his childhood, he'd been my shadow. During a Patriots' game, he'd slink into the recliner next to me to watch the game. When he heard the whine of power tools in the garage, he'd quietly appear at my elbow to watch and learn.
Now, at 19, Collin wears his baseball cap backwards and he stands a solid five inches taller than me. As he was packing the car to leave, I tried to think of all the things I needed to say. Be kind to the girls. Show up for classes. Don't drink too much. Do the work. You know, classic dad advice.
I couldn't quite believe that he wouldn't be there next to me at the workbench on the weekends and I wondered if I'd said enough, taught enough, loved him enough.
After a hug and a wave, he hopped into the car and sped out of the driveway and off to college. Thanksgiving seems like such a long time from late August. What would he be like when he came home in three months?
After he vanished down the street, I walked back into the house and heard a voice from upstairs calling me. "Dad! Check this out!" It was Robbie, 13 years old, our youngest son. He was stretched out luxuriously on his brother's bed, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn't be tossed into the hallway by an older, bigger and stronger brother.
Robbie was languidly tossing a baseball into the air and catching it. "Dad," he said earnestly, "now that Collin's gone, can I have his room?" I had to laugh. There's nothing quite like a thirteen-year-old boy for a demonstration of calculating self-interest.
Thanks, Robbie, for reminding me I've got a lot more years of fatherhood ahead of me. And, no, you can't have your brother's room.