Sometimes a simple place can stir the sweetest of memories.
30 miles east from Pittsburgh, on Route 76 East, there’s a non-descript Sunoco station. I stopped there tonight, on-route to Philadelphia. I often do, when I take this trip, because it reminds me of a night I will never forget.
March 13, 2014. JP was 10 years old. I stopped at this station at about 11 pm that night. JP was asleep in the back of the car, fully extended, from door to door, as little kids can do. He was in a little sleeping bag, with pillows beneath his head. I was desperate to make good time. He was playing in US Nationals the next morning at Princeton University. We still had 5 hours to go. His match was at 9am. Yes, we would be arriving around 4am.
What kind of planning was this?
Well, 6 hours earlier we were on a plane to Princeton. We were in the air. But one of the engines malfunctioned. They had to turn around 20 minutes into the flight, land the plane and try to fix the problem. 45 minutes later they said it was unsolvable – on this night anyway. The plane was grounded. Flight cancelled. And we couldn’t find a workable alternative.
So at 6pm we re-routed for ground transport. A long drive to Princeton, NJ. We zipped home. Loaded the car with things that would help JP sleep and took off, on the road, for Princeton. Somehow I would get him there.
“Go to sleep,” I said, sometime around 8pm. “I’ll wake you up when we get there.” Not quite knowing how I would manage the 8 remaining hours in the dead of night.
But squash was JP’s great love. Competing at US Nationals was something for which he had worked for years. Winning it was a dream. This year – the U11 Nationals – he had a shot of winning. I wasn’t going to be the one not to believe in his dream.
So we zoomed toward Pittsburgh, without a stop, passed below its southern edge, and kept heading east. 5 hours into our drive, I found this road-side Sunoco station. The kind that are right off the highway: easy off, easy on. I needed gas. Fast. JP was sound asleep. He didn’t notice a thing. I fueled up the car and got back on the road. Somehow I made it to our hotel by 3:45 am. Transferred him to the bed. Woke him around 7. To the courts by 8. He played his first match played in a kind of slumber. But he made it through.
He made it through every match that weekend, with increasing confidence and expertise. He won his first US Nationals, with a feathered, top-spin forehand drop on match ball, after a long and grueling point. It was worth the trip. It cemented a life-long passion.
Tonight I am on the way to another Nationals. JP’s first Collegiate Nationals. He’s a Freshman and this is the individual Intercollegiate Nationals – as opposed to Team Nationals which took place last weekend. Only now my son is not in the back of my car. He doesn’t need me to pave his way anymore. To get him from place to place. To make sure he rests. To think about his food. To prep him for his matches. To coach him.
He has coaches for that. He has a team.
This tournament I’ll be up in the stands, quietly watching as JP goes about the game he loves. Going about it, like he now approaches the game of life, with ever growing independence. He’ll rise without me. Prep without me. Warm up without me. Be coached by someone other than me. Win without me. Lose without me.
It’s a kind of rite of passage that has been happening all along this year, that was beginning even last year, as a Senior in high school, living with increasing independence. It’s a good thing.
But still: the contrast struck me with a kind of poignancy as I pulled into that Sunoco station tonight.
I fueled my tank beneath the phosphorescent lights and felt a pang for the old days. Those days of close togetherness and tenderness. Father and son. He needed me then. He looked to me. He counted on me.
I think: once that little boy was tucked in the back of my car, a tired bundle of total trust that his Dad would pave his way for him. But now he paves his own way.
There is something I miss about those old days; something I miss about that long lonely drive, that March night in 2014, that night that was powered by the urgency of young fatherhood.
But there is also something marvelous about coming here to watch my son continue to flower as a young man. Something that long drive to Princeton somehow helped to further.
Alas, I cannot pause the march of time. But I can sit back, in the flow of it, and love what I see. I can take my seat in a new story.