Family Matters

Letting Go

Absence can make the heart grow wiser

Richard Lappin
Magazine Issue
January/February 2009
Letting Go

I throw his bags in the back of the van and walk back into the house to tell Dylan it’s time to go. He glances up at me, and then looks straight ahead as he walks out the door. Although he won’t see them for a week, he says nothing to his mother or his younger brother. We’re driving to San Pedro, where he and 25 other Boy Scouts and several adult leaders will board a boat for Catalina Island for summer camp.

Dylan wears his “class A” scout uniform, but touches it off with a bright-red knit beanie, pulled down low over his forehead. His eyes peer out in what’s become an almost perpetual expression of wary irritability. He’s 13 going on 17, or 10; I’m never quite sure. I mentally note his lack of good-bye to the family, but I don’t comment on it immediately. These days, timing is everything with him.

The hour’s drive is pleasant enough. We talk about who’s going to camp and which activities will be the most fun, and listen to his current favorite CD. I ask about what happened with his mother and brother, but know enough not to press the matter. I’m determined to have a good send-off. Life with Dylan has been difficult lately.

We find his troop amid crowds of scouts and vacationers at the terminal, drop off his gear, and wait. He meets friends while I hang with parents, sharing news of our families, cursorily reading vacation brochures. Two other dads and I wander outside to
get away from the hubbub. Suddenly, one of them looks back through the glass doors and says, “Hey, I think they’re boarding!” We rush in to say good-bye to our sons, only to find that they’ve already walked out the other way and onto the boat.

We crowd with others at a window, all waiting to watch the Catalina Express motor away. A man who was out on the sidewalk with me spots his son at the stern and calls out his name; the boy hears him, smiles, and yells back a good-bye. I don’t see Dylan. I study the boat, some 50 yards away, looking for the red beanie. Not having hung out with him since we arrived, I want him to know that I’m here, with the last of the parents, to see him off, a final show of support before he leaves for a week of measuring himself against his peers and adult leaders.

We wait, and wait, as the boat fills and the crew prepares for the trip, and we each scan the boat for our boys. After 20 minutes, I spy the red beanie and call out his name. I’m the only parent to do so, though, as others have already said their good-byes, and my voice, so loud when I criticize Dylan at home, comes out as a hoarse bark, my self-consciousness in the swirl of onlookers grabbing at my vocal cords. Dylan can’t hear me. Minutes later, as the engines begin to turn, he looks back at the terminal and sees me, and we both wave, smiling.

I watch briefly as the boat eases away from the dock, and then I leave with the other parents. I don’t turn on the radio for the drive home, choosing to think about my older son in the silence of the car. His younger brother would have worked himself into a tense knot of anxiety about leaving home, but Dylan has thrown himself into this activity with abandon, as he has other outings.

Last summer, his first trip to a summer scout camp was aborted after one day by a wildfire. He still gets animated telling the story of his troop’s evacuation at midnight, and how he looked out the back of the bus at the fire approaching in the not-so-distant woods, the bus slowly climbing up the 11-mile dirt road out of the aptly named Lost Valley campground. Adversity became adventure.

He’s a complicated boy. At times, he can be intensely “in the moment,” and then struggles to shift gears when requested to by his teacher, or by his mother and me. Easily distracted, he also can go into a tunnel of focus, oblivious to the world around him. As with many children I see at work, his AD/HD often shows itself as a problem with the modulation of attention, more than simply a deficit of attention. When he’s engrossed in a Harry Potter novel or working on some mad-scientist project in the garage (usually involving duct tape, nails, PVC pipe, scraps of wood, and low-grade explosives), it seems as though his attention dial goes from “on” to “off” and back, with no gradation in between.

The shadow side of his exuberance is his tendency to run roughshod over the frailties and needs of others. His passions are strong but short-lived. Consequently, the patient, benevolent encouragement that quiet, compliant children receive from adults often seems unavailable to him. Even the most well-intentioned teachers, coaches, and scout leaders have trouble shaping his focus and energy. Team sports aren’t his strength.

Occasionally, someone sees through his volatility and attends to him in a better way than the rest of us can. At an open house at school, I asked his orchestra teacher, a well-respected music instructor, if Dylan, who excels at violin and has an exceptionally accurate sense of pitch, could get into the string orchestra, the school’s most prestigious ensemble. He looked at me and said, in a tone of complete confidence and understanding, “Dylan can do anything he wants to.” It still brings tears to my eyes to recall that moment, when someone saw the best in my son, contradicting my own inept moments as a father who can’t always keep the faith.

Our week with Dylan away at camp is calm. His 10-year-old brother, who enjoys the extra one-on-one time with his mother and me, plays a lot of basketball with friends. My wife and I let our batteries recharge without mentioning Dylan much. We send letters to him at camp and wait for replies.

The following Saturday, my wife and younger son go to his basketball game, and I drive up to San Pedro to wait for the Catalina Express. I joke with the other parents about the clean clothes the boys packed, which are sure to come home untouched. The boys arrive and dutifully accept our hugs, and we each drive off. Dylan talks nonstop for the hour and fifteen minutes that it takes to drive home, occasionally pointing out that I’m interrupting him when I think I’m just asking a clarifying question. I nod and shut up.

Listening to the full length of Dylan’s stories, I come to see him in a way that I hadn’t previously, or had forgotten. His perception of the challenges, thrills, and demands of life at camp seems to capture the complexities of his personality. All the extremes and apparent contradictions are there: troop leaders are spoken of critically, hostilely, or with surprising affection. It’s the same with the camp staff (older teens): while a counselor whom Dylan dislikes “should die,” another was “so cool.” Dylan even says he wants to be a camp counselor when he’s older.

Camp sucked. Camp was fun. He hated it. He wished he could have stayed longer. But most revealing was his talk of the adults. His sensitivity and anger at adults for being critical, condescending, patronizing, or humiliating, burned through his talk. His respect for the adults and older teens who’d taught and led well, and respected him, shone through just as much. I hear a vulnerability in him that I often miss at home, when I fall into the chorus of corrections, prompts, and scoldings that are all too easy to dish out.

By the time we pull up to the house, I begin to appreciate Dylan in a new way. It wasn’t any one thing he said that gave me insight: rather, it was the pure, unadulterated listening to his experiences, with all the range of emotion and perception that they’d stimulated in him. His experiences matched the highs and lows that he and I have known over the years. I flash to my small fatherly successes and my seemingly larger failures: the bursts of anger and frustration that I’ve directed at him.

I think of his orchestra teacher, and it all comes together in a burst of clarity that’s almost painful. I feel more alert, more present for Dylan. I begin to remember with a fresh mind what he needs of me.

I know that I’ll still struggle at times to hear the urgency of his voice, losing myself in the distraction of his behavior. We’ll never be perfect together. But I know how much I want to match his voice with my own, calling out to him from the boat terminal, sometimes hoarse and constricted, but wanting always to boom out, across any waters, full-throated, never failing him.

Richard Lappin, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Rancho Santa Margarita and San Juan Capistrano, California. He’s currently working on a CD of original songs, The Crooked Way Back Home. Contact: