BRYSON'S AMERICA: Shed a tear for discarded yesterdays

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The Independent Culture
THIS MAY get a little soppy, and I'm sorry for that, but yesterday evening I was working at my desk when my youngest child came up to me, a baseball bat perched on his shoulder, a cap on his head, and asked me if I felt like playing a little ball with him. I was trying to get some important work done before going away on a long trip, and I very nearly declined with regrets, but then it occurred to me that never again would he be seven years, one month and six days old, so we had better catch these moments while we can.

So we went out onto the front lawn and here is where it gets soppy. There was a kind of beauty about the experience so elemental and wonderful I cannot tell you - the way the evening sun fell across the lawn, the earnest eagerness of his young stance, the fact that we were doing this most quintessentially dad-and-son thing, the supreme contentment of just being together - and I couldn't believe that it would ever have occurred to me that finishing an article or writing a book or doing anything at all could be more important and rewarding than this.

The reason for this sensitivity is the fact that our eldest son is now at a small university in Ohio. He was the first of our four to fly the coop, and now he is gone - grown up, independent, far away - and I have realised how quickly they go.

"Once they leave for college they never really come back," a neighbour who has lost two of her own in this way told us wistfully the other day.

This isn't what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that they come back a lot, only this time they hang up their clothes, admire you for your intelligence and wit and no longer have a hankering to sink diamond studs into various odd holes in their heads. But the neighbour was right. He is gone. There is an emptiness in the house that proves it.

I hadn't expected it to be like this because for the past couple of years even when he was here he wasn't really here, if you see what I mean. Like most teenagers, he didn't live in our house in any meaningful sense - more just dropped by a couple of times a day to see what was in the refrigerator or to wander between rooms, a towel round his waist, calling out, "Mum, where's my ...?" as in, "Mum, where's my yellow shirt?" and "Mum, where's my deodorant?"

Occasionally I would see the top of his head in an easy chair in front of a television on which Oriental people were kicking each other in the heads, but mostly he resided in a place called "Out".

My role in getting him off to college was simply to write cheques - lots and lots of them - and to look suitably pale and aghast as the sums mounted. You can't believe the cost of sending a child to university in the United States these days. Perhaps it is because we live in a community where these matters are treated gravely, but nearly every college-bound youth in our town goes off and looks at half a dozen or more prospective universities at enormous cost. Then there are fees for college entrance examinations and a separate fee for each university applied to.

But all this pales beside the cost of university itself. My son's tuition is $19,000 a year - that's nearly pounds 12,000 in real money - which I am told is actually quite reasonable these days. Some schools charge as much as $28,000 for tuition. Then there is a fee of $3,000 a year for his room, $2,400 for food, $700 or so for books, $650 for health centre fees and insurance and $710 for "activities". Don't ask me what those are. I just sign the cheques.

Still to come are the costs of flying him to and from Ohio at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter - holidays when every other college student in America is flying, and so airfares are at their most stupefyingly extreme - plus all the other incidental expenses like spending money and long-distance phone bills. My wife often calls him to ask if he has enough money, when in fact, as I point out, it should be the other way round. Oh, and this goes on for four years here, rather than three as in Britain. And here's one more thing. Next year I have a daughter who goes off to university, so I get to do this twice.

So you will excuse me, I hope, when I tell you that the emotional side of this event was rather overshadowed by the ongoing financial shock. It wasn't until we dropped him at his university dormitory and left him there looking touchingly lost and bewildered amid an assortment of cardboard boxes and suitcases in a spartan room not unlike a cell that it really hit home that he was vanishing out of our lives and into his own.

When we got home it was even worse. There is no kickboxing on the TV, no astounding clutter of trainers in the back hallway, no calls of "Mum, where's my...?" from the top of the stairs, no one my size to call me a "doofus" or to say, "Nice shirt, Dad. Did you mug a boat person?" In fact, I see now, I had it exactly wrong. Even when he wasn't here, he was here, if you see what I mean. And now he is not here at all.

It takes only the simplest things - a wadded-up sweatshirt found behind the back seat of the car, some used chewing gum left in a patently inappropriate place - to make me want to blubber helplessly. Mrs Bryson, meanwhile, doesn't need any kind of prod. She often blubbers helplessly - at the sink, while hoovering, in the bath. "My baby," she wails in dismay and blows her nose with an alarming honk on any convenient piece of fabric, then whimpers some more.

I have found myself spending a lot of time wandering aimlessly through the house looking at the oddest things - a basketball, his running trophies, an old holiday snapshot - and thinking about all the carelessly discarded yesterdays they represent. The hard and unexpected part is the realisation not just that my son is not here, but that the boy he was is gone for ever. I would give anything to have them both back. But, of course, that cannot be. Life moves on. Kids grow up and move away, and if you don't know this already, believe me, it happens faster than you can imagine.

Which is why I am going to finish here and go off and play a little baseball on the front lawn while the chance is still there.