I know when to find the exit.
At least I’m not so oblivious I wouldn’t notice an embarrassed glance from my 13-year-old even as we stood in the predawn dim at the end of our driveway waiting for the school bus to arrive on the first day of a new year.
It was a look I hadn’t seen before from him, but one I knew was coming someday. I have seen plenty of eye rolls and glances in the other direction over the years, but this look was a little different.
It was that one every parent dreads a little as their children grow from little kids, to big kids, then into small-ish adults. That glance that at once says “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but your sweatpants, sandals, T-shirt and coffee are a little much and I’m big enough to wait for the bus on my own.”
I’m not unused to being a bit of an embarrassment to our kids. In fact, I often cherish my role as the flagrantly unfashionable parent who often insists on holding hands with our children — even the adult-sized ones — as we walk down the street. Sure they might prefer to distance themselves from my spectacle, but I figure if they can handle a few blocks walking with ol’ dad, they should be impervious to peer pressure.
This time was a little different, though.
For several years, both out of necessity and joy, I have been the morning parent. The human alarm clock that rousts sleepy kids from bed. The lunch packer. The shoe tier. The snow pant drier. The hair brusher. The backpack zipper.
Turns out those predawn hours also are the few in the life of a small-town newspaper editor when cellphones aren’t yet ringing, messages aren’t dinging and deadlines linger at the far end of the sun’s arc.
Often, for about an hour each morning, I have reasonably uninterrupted time with my kids. And that time is punctuated with just a few minutes each day when the bustle slows and we stand at the end of our driveway waiting for the school bus to arrive.
We talk about the world around us, the day ahead, and good times behind. We talk about how to be good students, thoughtful people and loyal friends.
Sometimes we’re early and take our time. Other mornings we arrive just in time to hear the bus brakes squealing as their ride lumbers to a stop.
Every morning they get a hug. I get a hug.
I felt the routine begin to change last school year with our oldest son. As I probably did to my parents, our hugs goodbye began to creep out of view of other kids — first moving from alongside the bus as it stopped to the moment the bus came into view then to the first moment the diesel carriage could be heard around the bend down the street.
This year, on the first day of classes, another kid joined us at the bus stop to wait for the morning ride. At that moment, the 13-year-old who spent eight years of mornings with me before school looked in my direction with a request I knew would come sooner or later.
It was that kind of knowing glance that says “Dad, it’s time.”
Long before the school bus touched earshot in the dark distance, I asked him if he was OK waiting without me. He nodded. I said to have a good first day of school.
I walked back to the house that morning without a hug to start my day, realizing our oldest son may have outgrown our morning routine. It’s the kind of change that seems inevitable, even obvious from the outside. An important milestone I should’ve seen coming.
It’s a moment he has been inching toward for the past few years, one I resisted a little longer than many. When it came, he was ready.
But I sure wasn’t.