Today is the day he's leaving for camp.
The early morning sun was filtering through the living room window. I thought I was the only one awake when I noticed Jacob sitting at his electric piano. Today is the day he’s leaving for camp for a week and he’s been excited about this for months. “I couldn’t sleep, dad.”
So he played the piano. He played quietly and respectfully as he didn’t want to wake anyone else. He’s only been playing piano for the last 8 months or so, but he practices constantly.
He’s supposed to play the beginning piano books his piano teacher wants him to play, but he would rather play harder songs. We never have to tell him to practice and often have to make him stop to go to bed. We don’t allow video games in the house and we rarely watch television.
As I make my coffee and watch him with his back to me, he starts to play “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by The Beatles. He doesn’t miss a note and he’s playing from memory. He seems so big this morning and overnight he is somehow more grown up. I can see what he will look like as an adult by his silhouette in the window. How did time pass so quickly?
I remember the day he was born and how I held him while Ivy’s anesthesia wore off. I remember looking into his eyes and knowing we were going to be best friends, but even then I didn’t realize how deep that would go. Most likely I don’t fully realize it even now.
Now he’s playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Again, from memory and he’s still playing softly and quietly. He’s almost 11 now and I think back to when he was 15 months old.
He wasn’t walking or talking yet and Ivy was getting worried about it as our friends had a daughter who was holding conversations at that age. When he was 3 he had trouble saying his “L” sounds and the school wanted to put him in speech therapy. We chose to simply keep reading to him. Now he’s the dictionary in school. Even the teachers ask him if there’s a question on how to spell something.
I come out of the fog of remembering and he’s playing “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. There’s something about this song that always brings tears to my eyes, this morning even more so. How did he get so big so fast? Ivy never met her biological father, but he was from the Bahamas, African American and we think only a generation or two from slavery. We can only imagine the strength Jacob’s ancestors on that side must have had. He’s tall for his age and we think he’s going to be very tall. He has thick, strong legs and he’s losing the baby fat that defined him as a child. Ivy wants him to be a basketball player.
He starts playing “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. This is a harder song and he has to try it several times, but he doesn’t give up.
As I listen I think back to the time he was 4 and we were by the fireplace downstairs. We were fascinated by the dancing flames and the heat that was coming out of the stove. He wanted to touch the stove and I let him do it. He only had a small burn on the tip of his finger, but it was a lesson he remembers to this day. I felt bad letting him get burned, but I knew this would prevent a worse injury some day when I wasn’t there.
Now he’s working his way through “Hotel California” by The Eagles and he needs to read the music. He has to stop and start again multiple times as it’s a complicated song. When he was 5 years old he and Ivy were at a pow wow. He was standing high up on the steep concrete steps in an auditorium watching the dancers and some kids came up behind him and pushed him.
He fell all the way to the bottom of the steps. He couldn’t understand why someone would do that to him. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt seriously, but his trust and his innocence were damaged forever. “Why are there bad kids, dad?” I couldn’t give him a good answer to that question, but he knows now to watch out for them.
He moves effortlessly into “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, now playing from memory again. This is another song that really touches me deep inside whenever I hear it, but the feeling is especially strong this morning.
I bought him a mini bike two years ago. I have always been around motors and have always done my own mechanical work and I want him to have those same skills. I started the bike for him the first two times and told him I would never start it for him again. I watched him several times with sweat coming out from under his helmet as he was trying to start it with the fuel valve off or the ignition switch off.
I let him keep kicking it over until he finally realized his mistake. I was in the yard the day he got overconfident and almost scraped himself off the bike as it went out of control through our apple tree and stopped just shy of hitting the house.
There was a lump in my throat as he got off the bike and slowly walked into the house. Even as a kid he realized how close he came to actually getting hurt. He treats that motorcycle with the respect it deserves ever since.
He finishes with another Beatles song, “Hey Jude.” It’s time to get ready to go to camp. He gets up from the piano and I notice he doesn’t move like a child anymore. He’s looking forward to going to camp with his friends and being on his own for the whole week. He takes his camping gear out to Ivy’s car as I’m getting ready to leave for work. Ivy and I wrote letters for him to open every night and we put a dollar in each one.
My role as a father includes being a teacher. Respect the earth. Honor our elders and our traditions.
There actually is a silver lining behind every cloud. There is a difference between right and wrong and the right path isn’t always the easy one.
My job is to prepare him to go out into the world. I can’t be there to protect him from all the dangers that are out there. I need to make sure he recognizes when there is danger and to make the right choices for him and for others. He needed to touch the stove and he needed to lose control of the mini bike. But I was there. I won’t always be.
As he left with Ivy, I told him “Good luck in camp, Jacob.”
Too soon it will be “Good luck in college, Jacob. Remember me when you play the piano.”
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.