This story originally ran in the Ottawa Citizen on January 25, 2003.
Alex, let’s take one more trip. What about a train trip to Glacier National Park? Or a volunteer vacation? Maybe we try something exotic: Tour Vietnam, bike through Cuba, raft down a whitewater river in Chile.
Let’s do this now.
Soon, you’ll be finished with high school and have better things to do than keep company with a greybeard who dispenses fatherly advice and insists on clean rooms and soft beds.
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The clock is ticking and it seems all the crucial things we’ve learned about ourselves — the ones discovered during our travels — rank among the most important.
Zihuatanejo, 1996: Standing on the soft, silky sands of Playa La Ropa, I hear Laurie gasp as you disappear into the sky, a tiny 11-year-old plucked off the beach by a giant parasail. You’re afraid of heights, yet you’ve made a plea to fly into the clouds and your mother and I, without much deliberation, consented.
Suddenly, you’re a speck in a vast, oceanic sky, Icarus tethered to a thin strand of rope connected to a motorboat. It circles the bay in predictable fashion, then abruptly and inexplicably stops. It sits there, motionless, idling in one place for what seems like an eternity.
“No problema,” a Mexican employee keeps repeating as Laurie and I fix each other with the mother of all what-were-we-thinking looks. Eventually, the boat resumes movement and you begin to return. Ever-so-slowly you drift back to the beach before finally dropping into the sand. Moments later, you jump up from the tangled harness, a mop of wind-blown hair wrapped around a huge grin.
I stood there amazed, proud of you for having so much confidence. You were finding your wings. I was learning something, too: Holding on and letting go, the fine print in a parent’s job description, was going to be more complicated than I realized.
Puerto Vallarta, 1999: It’s my last best shot, to borrow the title of a book about raising adolescents. You’re 14, insolent, inaccessible, bored, a young teen with raging hormones. We’re alone in Vallarta, father and son taking a sun break, me hoping to re-tie frayed connections, you too consumed by the sight of bikini-clad beach beauties to notice.
At a beach restaurant, I don’t object when you steal my margarita — “Don’t tell your mother” — and for a moment you’re not an alien from another planet and I’m not uptight, adversarial Dad. But it doesn’t feel right. “I wish my friends were here,” you say, morosely.
A few days later, Montezuma’s Revenge attacks me, forcing us to cancel plans to ride horses in the hills. Curled up in bed, I feel guilty. It’s your birthday and you’re cooped in a hotel room with me.
You go out to get me some bottled water, then some antibiotics. I awaken to find a bowl of chicken broth on the dresser.
We’re munching on Saltines, watching a televised Chicago Bulls game in Spanish (Un canasto, Michael Yordan!) and the conversation slides into your life, your school, your friends. The child I know has returned, the one with brains and humour and a streak of sweetness.
“You and Mom are always so worried about me,” you laugh. “What’s up with that?”
I’m not sure, but I understand a parental truth: We need our kids as much as they need us.
Guatemala, 2001: “Are you okay?,” I ask, pausing on the steep stairs to catch my breath.
“Piece of cake,” you reply without a hint of exertion.
It’s almost daybreak. We’ve risen early to climb Temple IV, the tallest pyramid at Tikal. Covered in a shroud of early morning mist, the towering temple rises through the dense forest canopy with an other-worldly spirit. Clambering across half-buried temples and listening to the loud, chattering sounds of jungle life, we’re amid powerful forces.
“Imagine what it was like when the Mayans ruled here,” you murmur.
We’ve come to Tikal precisely because I want you to imagine. I want you to be curious about how the world wags its tail in different lands. I want you to understand and join in and make it a better place.
You’re 16 and almost grown up, I realize. One month, you’re a baby in Seattle, another month, you’re in Tikal.
“Start your motor,” I warn, ready to resume climbing.
“Get out of first gear this time,” you fire back.
Then, you’re off, bursting up the steps. I watch as your muscular outline turns shadowy and disappears. I start moving, but I don’t try to catch him.”
Let’s take one trip. One more journey.
They’re filled with moments that define us.
They tell us where we came from and where we’re going.
We’re not done yet.