A parent for the fastest 20 years of my life

Mar 19, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

As of today, I have a 20-year-old son.

It raises questions.

First, how can it be? How can 20 years have passed since the breezy, sunny, chilly last day of winter in 1993 when Robert was born?

Second, what does it mean to be a 20-year old today? And would I go back to 20 if I could?

As for how the time passed, the answer is "very quickly." Rare is the parent who doesn't both marvel and despair at the swiftness of the birth-to-20 time period. Robert was home a few days ago, and I couldn't help spouting this same old story. He didn't see it the same way.

"It's taken all my life to get here," he said.

As many will recall, he was never really a tiny tot. But he was barely 6 pounds at birth and in the mid-5 pound range when we got him home, and he wasn't eating to the satisfaction of his know-nothing father.

Almost immediately, though, he grew prodigiously. For 12 years he was just about the biggest kid for his age anyone had ever seen outside a circus tent. Many times it caused confusion with adults who didn't know him, assuming this 5-foot-8 fourth-grader must be much older than he said he was.

Every doctor who saw him told us to brace ourselves for a giant. The feet were size 16 in the seventh grade. Finally, the rest of the body lost ground. He topped out at just under 6'4", but he has the flippers of a six-tenner. Wife Shawn uses a pair of his shoes as a prop in her fourth-grade class, to great effect.

He benefitted greatly from his two grandfathers, for whom he is named. Grandpa Hank had a great idea when Robert was about 5. Every birthday, let's rent a backhoe and spend the afternoon digging holes in the pasture. Afterward we'll ride the horse, then we'll get a fishing pole and try to catch a crawdad from the stream, and then we'll go inside and see if Grandma Ruth made some apple crisp (she always had).

If a kid ever had better birthdays, tell me who.

Grandpa Bob, whom Robert called Baba, took Robert with him to legislative committee meetings, meet-your-legislators sessions, and newspaper functions. They sat for hours in the old Model T Ford, traveling great distances without ever leaving the driveway. They started the pump, connected hoses, fitted couplings, and irrigated the property. They played cards, sang and sledded.

Robert would come home three hours later than expected with Baba, and we'd ask what they had been doing. "Everything" was Robert's most common answer.

"Tell me a story," was Robert's unending request. Baba obliged countless times, as did I. Later, I read at least 250 books to him, night in and night out clear through middle school.

Shawn founded a good sense of right vs. wrong in him. Being a straight arrow isn't always the easiest thing among a group of peers, but he's managing. All things considered, he prefers it.

He scored a few points on the basketball court and heaved the discus dutifully, and he was all state in band, but what he did best was read, write and talk. I nudged him toward the speech team, others drew him to the Key Club, and he grew to be great at both. In neither activity could a zealous father sit in the the bleachers yelling at him -- a positive factor, no doubt.

Always I have admired his readiness to test himself against the best, to see how well he could do. I've written before about the time he came home as a high school freshman and informed us that he had decided he never wanted to have any spare time. So he tried it all.

When it came time apply to colleges, he aimed as high as he could. The application forms require an essay from the kids, and we talked about the importance of education, the value of diverse experiences, of growth through service, of the need for decency and kindness.

Somehow, though, the idea came to write his entrance essay about the time he bowled over a saxophone player with his huge bass drum during marching band practice. It turned out to be solid gold. It also took him 2,000 miles away. Dad's mid-life crisis started the day we parted in New Haven, Conn.

He cut his spring break in half this year, flying back to school so that he and his college debate team could get ready for the first round of the national tournament. If they get through that at Miami of Ohio, they'll drive down (in Robert's old station wagon) to the national finals at Georgetown in Washington. Honestly, he's not all that thrilled about being 20. It has a funny ring to it. A lot of birthdays will from now on. I recall that 20 wasn't my best year, either. I was a college student then, living alone, far from home like he is, with my dad heading to the hospital for triple-bypass surgery.

It can be a stressful time of life even if you aren't at Yale. But the latter ingredient amps up the pressure. I've sat in on some of his classes and come away dazed. When I tell him about it, he is matter of fact: "It's supposed to be hard," he says.

My only child is a college kid, but he's not a child anymore. I've observed so often that he gets ahead of me in life. When I still thought of him as a toddler, he reminded me that he was 5. When he negotiated the perils of eighth grade, my offerings of advice were better suited to an elementary school boy.

How do I talk to a 20-year-old Yale student? After 20 years, I still don't have it down pat. But I am grateful that he still wants me to try. We talk a lot, but mostly he pulls me forward now. He keeps me... if not exactly young, then vital, at least in my own head.

Would I go back to 20 if I could? That's iffy. But I'd go back to 32 again without a second thought, ready to do that 20 years with my boy all over again.

But no such chance exists for any of us. What I have instead, if I'm lucky, is the next 20. If he'll have me, I'll be along for the ride.

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