Parents, however, deserve some sympathy. They are making adjustments of their own. At first, the absence of children at camp seems like a reminder of married life before children arrived -- a time of dates, movies and unmonitored friskiness. But soon it dawns that the absence of children is not a reminder but a preview -- the glimpse of a time when children no longer come home. In an empty house, it quickly becomes clear how much of a couple's conversation weaves around their children -- how much of their own lives has become an investment in the lives they produced.
The yearly departure for camp measures the progress of parental irrelevance. Four years ago, the first time my wife and I left our youngest son at sleep-away camp, there was no pretense of bravery on his part. There were only piteous tears, which returned, according to a camp counselor, every night for two weeks. I wanted nothing more than to run to him, to end the trauma we had inflicted and rescue him from independence. But I didn't. Each summer this departure grows easier for him and my older son -- and more difficult for me, until my bravery finally fails and all the tears are mine.
So this is the independence we seek for our children -- to turn our closest relationships into acquaintances. Of course, I knew this getting into parenthood. But the reality remains shocking. For a time, small hands take your own -- children look upward, and you fill their entire universe. They remain, to you, the most important things in the world. To them, over time, you become one important thing among many. And then an occasional visit or phone call. And then a memory, fond or otherwise.
The memory of my own father, gone these 17 years, is fond and blurry. He shrank in my mental universe from sun to star, bright and distant. With every season of camp, I dim to my sons as well. It is the appropriate humility of the generations. It is also harder than I thought. And I don't know how to let go.