As the school year winds down and many parents of high school seniors prepare to send their kids off to college in the fall, Slate wanted to share one father’s experience of coming to terms with this next chapter in parenthood. That father just happens to be Rob Lowe. The following is an adapted from Lowe’s memoir, Love Life, published by Simon & Schuster in April.
I’m trying to remember when I felt like this before. Like an elephant is sitting on my chest, like my throat is so tight and constricted that I can feel its tendons, like my eyes are 100 percent water, spilling out at will, down pathways on my face that have been dry for as long as I can think of. I’m trying to remember: When was the last time my heart was breaking?
The death of my mother was one time, but her passing was prolonged enough to let me prepare for it, to the extent anyone can. At the most intense moment, sitting at her gravesite, I felt like I could hear every leaf blower in a 50-mile radius, felt as if I could feel the sun’s rays turning my skin darker shades with each second, my skin irritated and jumpy, making me want to crawl out of it. I’m feeling it all now again, but no one has died.
When I was a boy, I had to leave my friends in the summer, just as Malibu was becoming Malibu, say goodbye to my first girlfriend and go to Ohio to stay with my dad. There is a little of that sense memory at play too, a feeling that I’m about to be left out of important events, separated from life as I know it, the world as I love it.
I am remembering and feeling the details of my parents’ divorce and our family’s forced march out of my home to an alien world across the country. The goodbyes to my father and my beloved grandparents; rationally I knew I would see them all again, but now I have the same body-deadening weight of the condemned, counting the minutes until the final moments of a life that’s all I’ve ever known. This encompassing, exhausting sadness I had mostly forgotten, or buried, until now.
Today is my son Matthew’s last night home before college.
I have been emotionally blindsided. I know that this is a rite many have been through, that this is nothing unique. I know that this is all good news; my son will go to a great school, something we as a family have worked hard at for many years. I know that this is his finest hour. But looking at his suitcases on his bed, his New England Patriots posters on the wall, and his dog watching him pack, sends me out of the room to a hidden corner where I can’t stop crying.
Through the grief I feel a rising embarrassment. “Jesus Christ, pull yourself together, man!” I tell myself. There are parents sending their kids off to battle zones, or putting them into rehabs and many other more legitimately emotional situations, all over our country. How dare I feel so shattered? What the hell is going on?
One of the great gifts of my life has been having my two boys and, through them, exploring the mysterious, complicated and charged relationship between fathers and sons. As I try to raise them, I discover the depth and currents of not only our relationship but ones already downstream, the love and loss that flowed between my father and me and how that bond is so powerful.
After my parents’ divorce, when I was 4, I spent weekends with my dad, before we finally moved to California. By the time Sunday rolled around, I was incapable of enjoying the day’s activities, of being in the moment, because I was already dreading the inevitable goodbye of Sunday evening. Trips to the mall, miniature golf, or movies had me in a foggy, lump-throated daze long before my dad would drop me home and drive away.
Now, standing among the accumulation of the life of a little boy he no longer is, I look at my own young doppelgänger and realize: it’s me who has become a boy again. All my heavy-chested sadness, loss and longing to hold on to things as they used to be are back, sweeping over me as they did when I was a child.
In front of Matthew I’m doing some of the best acting of my career. I’ve said before that the common perception that all good actors should be good liars is exactly the opposite; only bad actors lie when they act. But now I’m using the tricks of every hack and presenting a dishonest front to my son and wife. To my surprise, it appears to be working. I smile like a jack-o’-lantern and affect a breezy, casual manner. Positive sentences only and nothing but enthusiasm framing my answers to Matthew’s questions.
“Do you think it’s cold in the dorms in the winter?” he asks in a voice that seems smaller than it was just days ago.
“Naah!” I lie, having no idea what his new room for the next four years will be like.
This line of questioning is irrelevant anyway, as my wife Sheryl is preparing for any possible scenario, as is her genius. We all have our strengths; among hers is the ability to put anything a human being could possibly need in a suitcase. Or box. Or FedEx container. She is channeling her extraordinary love and loss into a beautiful display of preparing her son for his travels. And in the end, Arctic explorers will travel lighter.
Matthew’s dog, Buster, watches me watching Matthew as he sorts through his winter jackets. I am one of those people who believe dogs can actually smile, and now I can expand that belief to include an ability to look incredulous as well. Buster seems to be the only member of our family to see what a wreck I am, and he is having none of it.
“You disgust me,” he seems to say, looking at me with his chocolate eyes. “Get a backbone, man!”