A small band of recent high school graduates stands on the periphery of the humanity pond, my son Matt among them.
Spilling onto the sidewalk and lawn beside the two large all-white tour buses, the expanse of motley baggage does resemble a small pond. Around the pond’s edge, amid the suitcases, backpacks, and carry-ons, travelers and well-wishers appear like a troupe of vagabonds about to depart on a gig. But this is no musical or theatrical tour.
During most of the year, the trips from Yokosuka Naval Base to either Narita Airport or Yokota Air Base typically require only one bus. Today there are two. It happens every summer. As surely as the annual Japanese rainy season, the PCS (permanent change of station) period has fully arrived to the Kanto Plain. Families and single sailors will soon board those white buses to begin the next chapter of their military life adventures.
Matt does not leave today. His turn comes in August when he departs for Norfolk for his matriculation into Old Dominion University. Today Matt and the friends who still remain in Japan have come to send off one of their fellow graduates who will PCS with his family to the United States. Several other clumps of graduated seniors do the same with other friends.
Amid the hugs and handshakes, the photos and last minute gifts, and then the desperately inevitable final hugs, pathos fills the air. As surely as they walked across a stage barely over a week ago to receive their high school diplomas, these young adults now immerse themselves into a differently poignant rite of passage….saying “Good bye”, “So long,” “Farewell,” Auf Wiedersehen,” “Adieu”, “Hasta luego,” “Mata ne,” “Sayonara,” or just, “See ya.”
Or, perhaps, will never see ya again? Ow, that really hurts, for some to the point of tears.
Unlike graduation, this empathic rite of passage will repeat itself weekly throughout the summer until all who are moving on have done so. The losses will be very real, and for a time the pain will far outshadow the anticipatory joy of new beginnings.
For such is life, and thus transpires one of its most difficult, bittersweet experiences, losing someone or something you really love. Any time we walk across one of life’s many stages, our own lives really do change forever. And however much we anticipated, planned for, and relished that moment, loss is always a part of it too. For these young adults, life as a relatively carefree high school senior living and studying in Japan now ends. Friends disperse throughout the world. Families will be apart, if only for a while. Daily enjoyed relationships suddenly cease. A cherished part of life is gone for good. Uncertainty and change lie ahead. That’s a tough pill to swallow at 18. Does it ever get easier?
As a father, I would love to spare my son this darker side of life passages. I would wish to save him from the pain of losing friends and loved ones. I would even choose to suffer it myself so he would not have to feel it. That’s what dads should do, right?
Wrong. I learned years ago that a life fully lived means experiencing the lows as well as the highs, the sorrows as well as the joys, the losses as well as the gains. Too often in our society we want instant relief from pain or to assuage even mild discomfort. We just want to feel good all the time. That’s not life. That’s avoidance, which ultimately leads to unhappiness. True joy comes only when we’ve embraced the full gamut of life’s emotions and feelings. Can you tell how high is the mountain if you’ve never seen the valley?
The minute we are born we begin to experience loss. No longer passively connected to our mother’s nutrient system, we immediately become dependent on one another for continued life. That reliance on others ends only upon drawing our last breath. Our lives in the interim require a series of relationships, good ones and not so good ones, but necessary all. And periodically we lose people we love, upon whom we depend. And then we have to build new relationships all over again. Each loss takes a piece out of us. But each gain adds a different piece. The sum doesn’t always turn out even. But it is life. And life, first and foremost, is meant to be lived not escaped.
Relish life, my son, in all its forms and all its nuances, even if it means shedding tears…of sadness as well as joy.
I’ve got your back. That’s what dads do.