As I write this note, my two eldest sons are both flying across the Atlantic Ocean, headed west from Rio de Janeiro to London. They’ll have travelled through some of the world’s poorest places, got into a steel tube with 350 other souls, each holding their own story and looking backwards and forwards to old and new adventures, shot off across a vast body of water, and will land amongst the riches of Western Europe some time tomorrow morning.
Due to some complex plans driven by each of the six of us having all manner of separate lives, they’ll return home to a fairly empty house, and then meet me, their mother, their two younger brothers and the dog at an airport in France at around 17:08 on Thursday. I mention the date and the time because it’s been foremost in all of our minds and many of our conversations for weeks and months now. You know that expression about all your Christmases coming at once? Well, it’s absolutely likely that; there is a delicious anticipation about all being back together again.
To understand this as a big deal, we have to rewind a few weeks and years, because a lot of this is about #2 son. I have an element of bias here, but if you can show me a wittier, more self-contained and downright charming 19 year old I’d be surprised. He’s pretty much always been all of those things, other than the 19 year old bit – when he was a lot younger he was the dream younger brother who idolised #1, then he grew up a bit and became a brilliant elder brother, especially to the youngest mini-me, then he discovered music and became almost impossibly cool. But all the time he was being kind and calm at home – he made a couple of appearances where he was, quite frankly, out of his skull, but we parents tend to skilfully ignore those sort of incidents and concentrate on his fabulous smile when skipping around our thoughts of n & dearest.
After something that, for the sake of my current mood, we’ll refer to as a ‘clerical error’, he deferred going to university for a year. I asked him what he thought he’d do, adding fairly gently that hanging around the house drinking my beer wasn’t really an option. He said he was going to get a job, then do a bit of travelling. And he did, and then he did. He worked his nuts off at a couple of jobs, and saved up enough to go away for about five months, and planned his trip to South America. That’s right, South America, where they still enjoy kidnapping tourists, and running drug cartels.
“Should I worry?”
“No Dad, I can look after myself. I’ve been going to the gym.”
Ahh, that’s alright then.
Because he was travelling about, he packed everything he needed for five months into a really small rucksack, and we drove him down to Heathrow one Saturday morning. We had to get there for 4am, we were early and we quietly drank coffee in a huge deserted departures lounge. The security gates were shut, and when they opened, we all kind of shrugged and said our goodbyes, or at least any of those that we hadn’t said in the car on the way down, or the day before, or the week before.
He walked through the gates to security, and just as they started to close we craned our necks and could just see him turning and waving goodbye. And he looked like he was about ten years old again, with his school bag on his back and I remember thinking what a gawdawful mistake we’d made – how could we let this child go out into the world so young and so unprepared?
And, of course, because this story has several happy endings, all was well. He’s had a few scrapes along the way, and he started off with negligible Spanish and less Portuguese, but I bet his smile worked a treat. The wonders of technology have meant that he’s been able to Whatsapp and Skype us fairly regularly, and he’s managed to book hostels ahead, depending on where each particular bus journey is going to land. He’s travelled through Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, before meeting up with his brother about a month ago, to travel up the coast of Brazil to Rio. They Skyped us a couple of days after they’d met up, and there was that grin again. He didn’t really seem any different, still nicely self contained, still in control, still thoughtful, still happy, still very naughty.
In the scheme of things, taking yourself off round the world by yourself is only a big deal in a certain context. There are plenty of kids who have been through more, achieved more, suffered more, by the time they get to the ripe old age of 19. They’ve been orphaned, gone to war, been shot at, been married, had kids, several careers, and much more. But I’m not sure that’s the point, this post is more about something pretty cool, that someone pretty cool has done with his life for the last few months.
I’ve been reading a bit of Garrison Keillor recently, and, should you want for a bit of homegrown insight as to what this whole life thing is actually about, I can enthusiastically recommend his book ‘We Are Still Married’. About halfway through, there’s a couple of pages about his son coming back from travelling in Europe. It ends with this sentence:
‘The night when your child returns with dust on his shoes from a country you’ve never seen is a night you would gladly prolong into a week’.
And that’s why we can’t wait for Thursday…three more sleeps!