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FIRST-PERSON: Breakdown, bonding & a new beginning

ATLANTA (BP)–Poised at the edge of the tiny hotel swimming pool, my 19-year-old son Jon swept the area with his dark shades before removing them and finally wading in.

It wasn’t every day he had to worry about being caught with his Joe Boxers in the water, but to our family’s dismay, Jon’s real bathing suit lay packed amongst most of his earthly belongings somewhere in the U-Haul trailer roasting under a hot South Carolina sun.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Setting off from Georgia on a Saturday afternoon, my husband, son and I headed east on Interstate 20 and turned north on Interstate 95 before heeding the car’s weird sounds and eventual shutdown.

The mechanic who towed us — Buick and U-Haul included — to the nearest hotel with an available room about midnight said maybe the engine just got a little hot in the stifling heat wave and would start the next day.

That never happened. Bathed in prayer, sweat and frustration, my husband John patiently turned the key in the morning only to find the engine had succumbed to rigor mortis. It wasn’t going anywhere. That meant we were stranded in an expensive hotel and had no way of leaving until we could remove the U-Haul from its parking spot. The mechanic, after pronouncing his sentence Sunday afternoon, had towed the car off. He assured us that Monday evening would be the earliest we should expect the car to be returned.

Highway mishaps as such are typically unwelcome intrusions into a family’s time and finances. Rarely would one pronounce such a breakdown in glowing terms and positive reactions. But I suspect our family may have needed a little nudge to make sure our bond was evil-tight as we took one step closer to our son’s year of volunteer service in Boston.

Faced with decisions which can influence much of his life, Jon decided to leave his small-town Georgia college after a disappointing first semester and focus on trying to establish some sense of where he needed to be. It had been a tough summer prior to his leaving for college — my husband had resigned his church position just three weeks after the family joined him in Georgia — and both Jon and Belinda, our 20-year-old daughter, felt uprooted and vulnerable in a city they knew not, with their high school friends three states away in Kansas City, Mo.

The semester at home gave Jon ample time to experience a variety of job situations and to eventually decide he needs more time still before going to college on a fulltime basis. A generous and caring individual, Jon learned through a friend about Americorp’s CityYear program — the domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps.

The program seemed a perfect fit — until I learned that meant he would have to find his own housing and try to make it on $600 a month in one of America’s highest priced cities. I played devil’s advocate for months while Jon carefully charted his future and made solid plans. Our car problems were the first real glitch in an otherwise carefully orchestrated arrangement.

Treading water in the warm hotel pool, I laughed at Jon’s timidity about his makeshift bathing suit. At 6’5″ he rarely shows fear — a product probably of incessant teasing about his large body.

“Don’t worry, Buddy, nobody’s looking,” I smiled.

It struck me then that beneath my son’s confident voice, his mature image and his bold manner — he is still my little boy with wide green eyes and frolicky hair. I was reminded of his need to hear us express confidence in his decision to move — especially at a time when he was feeling responsible for the engine’s demise, and uncertain of how and when we would finally make it to Boston. Once there, he would sign a lease on his own and assume responsibility for three other roommates who will move in later in the month.

When Dad did a cannonball into the pool a short while later and started a small war, my laughter became reflective. At some point in what turned out to be our three-night stay, we decided to sort of pretend we were on vacation. The pool kept us laughing. The Wal-Mart just down the street kept us supplied with reading materials and crossword puzzles. The hotel’s television let the boys watch NASCAR together and focused our minds on worship Sunday morning. Finally, the nearby Shoney’s and Golden Corral kept us fed.

Mostly though, it was our acceptance of God’s providence which kept us from turning on each other or on ourselves in recrimination. “Pillow talk” between the three of us gave us a chance to recite Scripture, discuss various theological stands and to reiterate the importance of apologetics — especially in a city like Boston and in a program known for its diversity and openness.

It seemed Jon was more open to us than usual and relaxed about our advice, our opinions. Maybe he, like us, sensed this inconvenience as a little oasis in our hurried lives, a last chance to dialogue in this way with few distractions.

When we were finally back on the road, heading first through Washington, D.C., and then past New York, Jon stared out the window at where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be.

“I can’t believe they’re really gone,” he croaked uneasily. His high school choir from Missouri visited there in the spring before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Jon’s voice still held disbelief and disappointment.

Jon’s statement came back to me a few days later as my husband and I drove downtown to ground zero in bumper-to-bumper traffic to look at where the towers used to stand. It was a sobering site, but it made me feel strangely connected to my son.

The site represented to me, in that moment, the traumatic events and disappointments in Jon’s life — the missed opportunities, the sheer magnitude of his worth to us and the marvelous way God still triumphs in our darkest hour.

The loss of life at the towers is still unimaginable to me. I cannot really conceive of the depths of despair those who lost loved ones must have felt and must feel. Their personal loss is beyond my sphere of thinking.

I did, however, relate to the loss of the buildings in that moment. They were symbolic, yet proved to be only temporary. Already plans are made that some day a building will rise in their place. It will be different, but it will replace the empty hole.

Our Buick, starting out with three, returned home with only two. My heart misses the son who is so far away. The pain is constant. I accept and affirm his choice, but that cannot replace him here at home as part of our daily lives. I do, however, relish the new relationship that will result from this very important step as our son begins now to build his adult life — from the ground up.
Hannigan is an Atlanta-based national correspondent for Baptist Press.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan