I can’t believe it’s taken me this long…nearly nine months. But it’s not like I haven’t thought about it practically every day since the hike.
I guess some things just need time to process.
It was my youngest son’s birthday; his thirteenth. That’s an important day for most kids – “Woohoo! I’m a teenager!” – and a pretty significant “coming of age” birthday in many cultures.
I wanted to get it right.
My youngest son, River, is a good kid and I wanted to do something special for him; one of those memorable father and son things you hope your kid never forgets. Only time will tell if I accomplished this…for him. I mean, I know I’ll never forget that day.
It had to be something fun and exciting; something more than just a gift. It had to be something special so we could use code words and wink at each other like we had a secret. And it had to be something where I could weave in the talk – you know, as in, THE talk. He’s thirteen after all.
Then it came to me. A hike! What a great way to spend the day – dirt, snakes, creeks, backpacks and, best of all, no Xbox, no TV, no distractions and no girls. (No offense, ladies, but you can’t have THE talk with a girl around.)
I remember when I got THE talk. Everything was very serious. “Sit down, son. It’s time we have the talk.” It was heavy, significant, mysterious, cold and clinical. There was no room for levity. Both my parents were present and there were things I wanted to ask that I wasn’t comfortable asking around my mom.
You understand, don’t you?
Anyway, I wanted something different for my son. It was going to be a conversation – not a talk. It was going to be safe for him to explore any topic. I was going to listen to him as much as I spoke.
Making it part of a fun activity seemed like the perfect way to approach it.
Since it was his day, he was part of the planning process – although I reserved a few surprises for him. He chose Standing Indian for our hike. It’s not very crowded and there are tons of trails to choose from.
For my part, I read about “rites of passage” in different cultures; what they did and what it all meant. And I think I came up with a good plan.
Besides our hike, my plan included some fun things, a surprise picnic and some extra special snacks – you can never have too much food for a teenage boy.
I polished my talking points; the things I wanted to cover. And I made room in the plan for spontaneity.
But I still had to come up with the perfect gift – a gift that would be the BEST GIFT EVAH.
It finally dawned on me. I scrounged around looking for my old pocket knives. He’s wanted a pocket knife for years, but his mother kept telling him he needs to be a little older. I would have given it to him when he was ten – that’s when my dad gave me my first pocket knife, but that’s another story.
I didn’t mention the pocket knife to my wife. You know the old adage, “it’s easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Besides, he had to be old enough sooner or later.
His birthday finally came. It was the most beautiful November day I’ve ever seen. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and the leaves were still in color.
My son, River, decided he would like to take the path that followed the Upper Nantahala River. Now, before that lands on you like, “how apropos,” I don’t think it had anything to do with his name. The trail is flat. He’s not much into hiking up mountains…yet.
After 45 minutes, we came upon a nice spot in the river – rapids upstream, slow moving pool downstream and a fairly level rocky, sandy area.
I wanted to ease into my talking points. Give him a chance to play, let loose and be a boy before I talked to him about being a man. So we poked around here and there, exploring the sand bar. We collected some garbage that someone else left behind, found a big bear print and I taught him how to skip stones on the water.
The Main Event
Eventually we sat down on some boulders to watch the water dance through the rapids. Quiet time.
At one point he put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Thanks, Dad.”
“You’re welcome. The big one-three. Know what that means,” I asked?
“Yep. We’re gonna have THE talk.” And he smiled at me as if to say, “I’m ready.”
And that’s how it began; me wondering how he knew we were going to have THE talk.
It turned out easier than I thought. Being prepared helped a lot, I’m sure. And my son’s disarming humor and charm certainly lightened things up.
We talked about responsibility – both to himself, his family and his community. I answered his questions about what it means to be a man – to the best of my ability since I’m still figuring it out myself.
He asked questions about all the changes going on with his body. And, yes, we even talked about sex, love and relationships.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, I pulled out a handful of pocket knives. His eyes got as big as a harvest moon. I said, “You’re ready. Pick one.” He looked at all of them, touched them, opened them, turned them around in his hand and finally chose one.
He suddenly sat straighter. He seemed taller. His shoulders suddenly got broader. He batted his eyes, fighting back the overwhelming sense to cry. He doesn’t know, yet, grown men cry too. I forgot to mention that in THE talk.
He gave me a big hug and said, “I love you, Dad.” And, yes, my heart melted as I said, “I love you too.”
River jumped up and hopped around the sandbar, whooping and hollering. He just couldn’t contain the excitement any longer.
Turning back to me, he said, “Let’s go home. I can’t wait to show Mom my new pocket knife.”
I swallowed hard. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.
See ya’ on the trail,
I’d love to hear how you’ve handled or plan to handle this special time for your children. Let me know in the comment section.