A few years ago I took my family to Atlanta and rented a car for the two-hour drive north where my son’s summer camp was located.
It was the first time we had enrolled him in a sleep-away camp, the first time he would be away from home and beyond our careful watch — and for an entire month.
An otherwise smooth drive through the idyllic mountainous region of northern Georgia was abruptly interrupted when a tire on our rental car started to quickly lose air.
Fortunately, I pulled into a gas station just before the tire tore off and disabled the car in the middle of the interminably long and mostly deserted country road.
After waiting an hour or so at a gas station for a repairman to replace the damaged tire with a spare, we hopped back into our car and continued north until we pulled into our motel.
The next morning, we were preparing to leave our room and drive to the camp where we were to drop our son off for the summer.
As my son played a few more games on his laptop before giving it up for the summer (the camp had a strict policy against computers and other electronics), I noticed he started to cry.
The reality that he was going to be separated from us — the first time in our 12 years together — had suddenly sunk in.
His break-down triggered a chain reaction with my wife, and then me — and then our daughter — crying with him.
After an intensely emotional moment, we pulled ourselves together and drove to the camp, getting hopelessly lost while driving through a sparsely populated mountainous area with sporadic mobile coverage (another ominous sign that someone or something didn’t want us to undertake this adventure?)
After finally locating the secluded campground and getting a quick golf cart tour of the beautiful grounds and eating dinner in the cafeteria where my son would be taking his meals each day, we finally handed him over to the camp manager and said goodbye.
Unlike most other parents who simply had to drive north, south, east or west a few hours to return home, our journey started with a two-hour drive back to the Atlanta airport so we could catch a 13-hour flight to Tokyo, and then another 3-1/2-hour flight to Taipei.
We had literally left our pre-teen son to live among (very kind) strangers on the other side of the earth.
A month later, I made the trek back to Atlanta, rented another car for the two-hour drive north, and picked up my son from camp.
He had grown taller and had changed — subtly but noticeably — into a slightly more mature version of the 12-year-old child my wife and I left behind.
For the first time, he was no longer the little boy who latched onto me and hung onto my every word. He had become — for lack of a better way to put this — a stranger of sorts.
He had become his own person, and that was something I needed to get accustomed to.
This was just one of many more such pivotal moments over the next few years as we witnessed our son become more independent.
Some of these moments were spurred on by my wife or me, like the decision to send him to a summer camp halfway around the earth.
But many more of these moments have been initiated by our son, who has been trying to find his own way in this complex and confusing world.
I miss the nights when he would cuddle up in bed with me and I would read stories to him. For a time, he loved the “Hardy Boys”, just like I enjoyed reading about the adventures of those boy detectives when I was a kid.
Until just a few years ago, he used to call me at work everyday at about 4 pm after he had returned home from school, and would ask me the same pleading question: “When are you coming home, dad?”
He doesn’t do that anymore.
Now that he’s in high school, he runs his daily routine and all aspects of his academic and social life pretty much on his own.
Last week, he finished his final exams, the last round of his freshman year in high school.
He aced all of them.
This year, he substantially cut back from playing computer games and reinvested the time into his studies.
And he manages to stay physically active, playing competitive sports to pursue his passion for soccer and track and field — and as an outlet to burn off excess energy.
He also maintains an active social life, spending time on the weekends after a busy week at school with friends who welcome him into their homes and lives.
Of course, we worry. Where is he? What is he doing? When will he come home tonight after hanging out with friends? (And who is he hanging out with?)
He’s his own man now. He makes his own decisions. And he’s responsible for his actions.
And that’s something any father could hope for.