Ryan had driven his son Rory to school every morning since first grade.
In May he drove his son home from high school for the last time, calculating that they’d driven together some 2100 mornings to elementary school and high school across the years as Rory grew from little boy to the edge of manhood.
Today on the 26th day of August on a glorious morning of 73 degrees with the sun spilling from a blue sky dotted with whipped cream clouds they jolted north toward the Hudson Valley on the Sprain Parkway.
“I wonder why they call it the Sprain instead of the Fracture Parkway,” Ryan said.
“That joke doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” Rory replied in their usual shorthand banter.
They chuckled to ease the rasp of unspoken words jammed in the backs of their throats like paper in a printer.
Then a loud rumble filled the void as Ryan gazed in his rearview and side mirrors for the motorcycle he was certain was overtaking him. He didn’t see one.
“That’s your car, Dad.”
“Yeah, it’s shaking like crazy.”
Ryan veered to the narrow shoulder as cars whipped past as fast as the years that took them from pre-K to this detour on the road to his son’s independence. Ryan clicked on his hazards, they climbed out, and saw the left rear tire was flat.
They both uttered the same curse that son had learned from father.
“It’s not so bad,” Ryan said.
“It’s only flat on the bottom.”
“Unlike that joke which is flat top to bottom.”
They laughed, unpacking half the new stuff for his dorm room onto the shoulder of the road so that they could dig out the buried spare tire, jack, and tire iron.
Ryan realized he’d never taught his kid how to change a tire and so this was literally one last father/son life lesson for the road. Ryan loosened the lug nuts with the tire iron then twirled the old-fashioned hand jack, showing his kid how to remove the lug nuts and the tire in mid-air, replacing it with the smaller spare tire that father told son was called a “donut” because it looks like it came from an Entenmann’s box.
“Uh huh,” Rory said, frowning.
When Ryan lowered the car and finished tightening the lug nuts on the donut, Rory gently took the tire iron from his father and the kid who could out-lift his old man by almost 100 pounds in the gym tightened the lug nuts another full turn each.
Father and son climbed back in the car and drove north to the sprawling green campus on the glittering Hudson where 1000 other freshmen were unloading their gear in a designated parking lot. Rory joined a group of pals from high school who were also dorming on campus. They stood eyeing and talking about a group of teenage freshman girls who stood glancing at and talking about them.
Suddenly from the point of view of these young people “leaving home” didn’t look so bad.
Ryan thought it was like Stage II of a journey as the capsule disengaged from the booster rocket.
Ryan and Rory trekked across the campus carrying a TV and computer as a campus truck service delivered individual loads to designated dorm rooms. The living quarters were cramped but clean and efficient, and as they unpacked the emotions started to rise in Ryan. Unlike every other school drop-off, Little League game, and friend’s party, on this trip his kid would not be returning home with him.
“It’s nice,” Rory said looking around his room, after meeting his roommate and four other suite mates.
They had a bag of wet laundry that they didn’t have time to dry at home and so Ryan led Rory to the laundry room, teaching his kid how to use the washers and dryers. After grabbing a last burger together Rory received a text that the freshmen had to gather in the gym for a group photo of “the Class of 2021.”
“I gotta go, Dad. Sorry…”
Ryan opened his arms. His son embraced him. Ryan slapped Rory’s broad back.
Rory whispered, “Thanks.”
“For what, kiddo?”
“For everything you ever did for me. Especially this opportunity.”
Ryan looked in the baby blue eyes of his son who would be 18 in a week, still gripping his kid’s shoulders.
“Don’t blow it.”
“I promise I won’t.”
They exchanged “I love yous” and then Ryan let go of his son like a dangling man letting go of a window ledge.
After driving his son to school for the very last time, Ryan drove south. He glanced at the passenger seat.
It was empty.
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