My oldest child is a strong-willed, independent soul who has steadfastly avoided the paths chosen by most of his peers. A lone wolf, he has always performed best when he has a concrete goal in sight, especially if it presents a unique challenge.
So, it was fear, rather than surprise, that gripped me when Karl came to me shortly after his graduation from high school and told me that he did not want to go to college in the fall, but instead, wanted to join the Army and its Special Forces. Karl grew up as a military brat. His father was a Navy officer, as was I, and after I divorced and remarried, Karl's stepfather was a Navy physician. Despite a deep appreciation for the opportunities the Navy had given me, I wished a more settled life for my children and wondered if the frequent moves had contributed to his distant personality.
In the fall of his senior year, Karl had decided that he wanted to go to school in Colorado, where his father had lived for years and which he loved. During several trips to see his dad, they trekked to many of the good schools in the University of Colorado system and narrowed it down to two with settings in the mountains and curricula that included a wide variety of environmentally focused disciplines. He was accepted by both, and in late January he made his decision.
By late March, he was set with a nice scholarship, the very low state of Colorado tuition, and a housing application to room with his good friend Zach. It was all too easy. I felt survivor's guilt all through April and May as my friends fretted over the whole process with their children.
Then, soon afterward, mother and father, stepmother and stepfather, grandparents, aunts and uncles sat, somewhat shell-shocked, as this tall, imposing young man walked across the stage to receive his diploma. Eighteen years had passed so quickly.
But in the week after graduation, Karl grew remote; something was not right. He went to work, hung out with his friends, enjoyed the summer -- but I could sense that something was bothering him. In mid-June he finally came to me and said, "Mom, I don't want to go to college." Karl does not ever say much of anything without giving it a lot of thought, and certainly not a matter of this magnitude. I listened. He continued, "I've been talking to some recruiters from the Marines and the Army, and I want to go into Special Forces."
I swallowed hard. I am a strong supporter of the military, but we are at war and this was my handsome, strong, intelligent son, who had his whole life ahead of him and so many choices. I did not want him out there getting shot. I realized that this must be how hypocrisy arises -- when one has a personal stake at odds with one's own beliefs. I could give him guidance, but fighting his personal decisions was no longer my place.
He wanted approval, my blessing for this course, and so together we researched and visited Marine Corps and Army programs that could lead to their respective special forces. Karl felt that the Army's was the best defined, and he began the process of qualifying. He passed the first skills tests with good scores. Then he went for a thorough physical and physical skills test, and an initial evaluation for a security clearance. He was offered a 21/2-year course of training that guaranteed him the opportunity to shoot for Special Forces.
I do not think I have ever heard such elation and pride in his voice. The road ahead will be very difficult, one where he could wash out at any number of hurdles. Karl must accomplish this himself, with nothing from us. If he does, it is his.
With Karl's decision made but no papers yet signed, we sat with his recruiters and openly discussed the consequences of his going to war. I told him that I knew it sounded romantic and manly to die for his country, but what about getting maimed for his country? What if he came back blind or without limbs? Had he considered how he would then live the remaining years of his life? It seemed so harsh; he is so young to be confronting such things.
Karl listened intently and acknowledged what could happen, still set on the course. I felt that the Army had given us straight answers and that at least he knew where he was going.
There is part of Karl that worries about disappointing his father and me by not going to college right after high school. My mother and several sisters are openly opposed to the war and the policies of the current administration, and aggressively campaigned against Karl's joining the Army (although once he made his final decision, they were fully supportive). My in-laws, also very opposed to the war, maintained a hands-off approach, but Karl feared their disappointment. His father, while positive about a military career in the future, wanted Karl to complete a college education and then consider it. Living in an area where most of his friends and the adults around him are strongly anti-war, Karl remained closemouthed, not wanting pity or disdain for his chosen course.
The summer ended, and we had a big party in the middle of September to celebrate Karl's 18th birthday and to say goodbye. He was amazed at the number of friends and family members who came to send him off. I watched him that evening and saw surprise and happiness in his face. The rest of us realized that this was different than watching a child go off to school. Karl was leaving in a much more abrupt way, not the slow, gentle process of separation that college is. Instead, he was leaping immediately into a world where he will have the real job of protecting his country and fighting for its ideals. It is not college, where the biggest consequence of failure is flunking a class. He cannot walk away from this.
His departure came three months after that day in June when he told me his decision, and I had certainly had ample opportunity to pore over his childhood and reminisce. Over the summer we had talked in a way that we never had before. He was making his own decisions. I had separated; I was ready.
But now with this tall, beautiful man standing in my doorway, only a duffel bag and a few necessities in tow, I faced a goodbye that I was not ready for. My chest felt like time had stopped and I could not breathe. I tried not to cry, and told him how proud I was of him, how very much I loved him.
And then, Karl gave me a genuine, crooked smile and walked across the threshold, leaving a part of my life forever and entering his own.