A brisk October wind drove the chilling rain slantwise through the seams of the bleacher roof as we proud parents huddled together for warmth. And as we shivered in the cold, row upon row of young Airmen passed proudly in review with their squadron-mates at the Lackland Air Force Base basic military training graduation exercise. Somewhere in one of those rows of ram-rod straight young men and women stood our oldest son. His mother and I had traveled down to San Antonio to witness this milestone event in his life and it was with a mixture of pride, relief, and trepidation that we looked on as these young Airmen took the enlistment pledge together, foreswearing their young lives to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and the liberties it preserves.
It is unnerving to see how abruptly a page turns and a new chapter begins.I remember the evening before we took our son to the airport hotel for his early departure the next morning for basic training. We gathered together in front of our icon corner and said our family prayers together and I recalled all the other times we had done so, quietly rebuking myself for not having been more consistent in this. As our son said good-bye to his older sister who was herself headed off for study in Europe, I wondered when they would see each other again. Ad we drove the half-hour to the hotel I desperately wanted to make the ride last a bit longer. Eighteen years had passed by so quickly that I was stunned at how sudden they ended. Wasn't it yesterday when we proudly took our little auburn-haired baby boy home from the hospital on another crisp October morning?
We arrived too soon at the airport hotel and there embraced as his mother and I said good-bye to him by the car. He seemed as much a little boy to me just then as he ever had and yet I knew that he would walk through the door into the hotel lobby and that I couldn't follow. My role as protector, provider, and doting father was at an end and it would be other men who would now take charge of my son and shepherd him through this next part of his life. As we drove away from the curb we saw him standing at the check-in counter and the tears began to fall. Had we done enough to prepare him for the rigorous experience he was to undergo? Had we instilled the faith and character he would need to successfully complete his basic training and the demands of language school that awaited him beyond? The door to that hotel lobby was the portal beyond which only he could venture and I knew as we drove home -- a much longer trip this time -- that our son's childhood had ended.
What would a mother and father not do for a child at such a moment as this? What price would be too high to pay to secure the welfare and happiness of a son or daughter? And though we parents might wish with every fiber of our being to hold on to them a bit longer we must release them to the adventures of life they are destined to experience. It would be tragic to stunt the growth and potential of our children for our own comfort, painful as releasing them might be.
This scenario is lived out countless times every autumn around the world as the next generation of young men and women take their place at the "grown-ups table" and, teeming with optimism and potential, leave home for college, the military, mission work, or working life. And when we drive away from that university dorm or airport hotel do we find ourselves wishing we had spent more money on lavish presents at Christmas for them? Do we regret not having spent more time at the office earning more cash to indulge their material whims? Probably not if we're paying attention.
The grave tragedy of our overly-materialistic age where our children are concerned is that the gifts most likely to help our children succeed in life are the ones that can't be purchased. Are we adults living the kind of lives to which our own children can resort for inspiration, example, and encouragement? Are we leaving a legacy of faith, fortitude, contentment, character, and joy in our relationships that will serve as a bulwark to the cynical resentment which so animates civic life today?
Do we pray with and for our children? Do we take them ourselves to weekly church services and show them by our own lives that serving God is the right thing to do? Do we prioritize our family time together and rejoice in each other's presence? I have spent far too many nights away from home in my private sector life in surgical sales prior to entering the priesthood to testify that the compensation, however generous, does not pay for the loss of not tucking my little ones in bed and kissing their foreheads each of those nights away.
Children eventually grow up and parents find that our roles are reversed. Before we thought of ourselves as teachers and guides to our little ones. We find soon enough that it is we who are learning from them. In my own case I discovered a depth of character and piety that put mine to shame in watching our oldest son and daughter charge eagerly and faithfully off into the university and the military with grace, perseverance, and aplomb. It is easy for us crusty old middle-aged types to decry the perceived shortcomings of the younger generations. But I have come to learn that these little ones possess a depth of faith and charity we are only just beginning to discover.
Last Sunday at the base chapel I looked out at the soldiers and airmen there who truly appreciated being in church. It was common to see a tear or two streaming down a young cheek as these young ones drank in the hope and love present in the divine services, a thing we pampered civilians take too lightly. Service to others may be merely a thing we "grown-ups" give lip service to but it is an animating principle with young adults today. Loyalty to friends and that ruthless, embracing honesty with which no true friendship can survive is waxing with our children at the very same time we see it waning among the grown-ups. Looking into the eyes of my sons and daughter and their fellow squadron mates and students I see not fear and trepidation, but strength, determination, clarity, sacrifice, integrity, hope, and love.
There are troubles in the world today as there have ever been. Today's headlines speak of war, looming pestilence, terrorism, scandal, broken trust, and poverty. And those of us sitting at the grown-ups table today must -- if we are honest -- look across at each other and confess our own shortcomings in not meeting these challenges head-on. But if there is a source of comfort and consolation to be found in these trying times it is that while we slept at our posts, vainly chasing material comforts and mindless distraction and tying ourselves up in knots over ridiculous partisan bickering, our own children have taken and are taking our places with a poise and determination we never expected. Thank God they've seen through our facades and have learned from our mistakes! And thank God that now a better generation of men and women follow along behind us and the chaos and destruction we've left in our train.
May God give them the strength and grace and mercy to complete the tasks we've left them half-done.
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the assistant priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado.