I confess that I have been bemused by delightful, intelligent friends who tell me how upsetting they find it when their teenage children leave home to go to the university. I think back to my own youth. I remember being packed off to a boarding prep school at the age of seven, at a time when such institutions were not nearly as touchy feely as they now are, unless you count canings for such appalling offences as talking after lights out as being touchy feely. An eighteen-year-old going off to the university can’t possibly be as distressing as a seven-year-old being dumped in a brutal prep school. How could any sane person not react with delight to the departure of a grumpy, selfish, messy teenager?
I have always assumed that my friends who are so distressed by being relieved of the presence of their teenage offspring must have remarkably kind and considerate children. Not for them the bedrooms littered with coca cola cans. Not for them the endless swearing. Not for them the assumption that teenagers have “rights” which mean they can do whatever they want whenever they want. Not for them the surly refusal to go anywhere the rest of the family are going because “everyone is so boring”. But now I wonder.
My wonderful, often thoroughly beastly, seventeen-year old son has left home. Today, at just after one o’clock, he caught a train from Paddington to Plymouth to start his basic training in the Royal Navy. Before you start weeping uncontrollably I should tell you that the Navy will send him back home for Christmas. But, once the new year starts, he will be gone for good. He will complete his basic training, then embark on his specialist training (he will be Chef Class 2 – presumably not rising to Vice-Admiral for several years) and then get his first posting, which will almost certainly be on a ship sailing thousands of miles away from England. He will be gone for good.
Yes, of course, the house will be much more peaceful without Zane. His bedroom, at last, can be tidied and made habitable. We will be allowed, subject to the protestations of his siblings, to watch programmes like Antiques Roadshow rather than endless repeats of Top Gear or depressing accounts of the daily lives of bailiffs. The weekly purchase of bacon can go down to manageable levels now that others will have to cope with Zane’s need for gigantic toasted bacon sandwiches every hour of the day and night.
There is a great deal for which to be grateful. And yet I already miss him. My child has embarked on a life of his own, a life which will be led far away from home. Yes I admit it, that makes me sad.
But I am also proud. Joining the Navy was entirely his own idea. He did it without help (other than help in funding the purchase of all the strange things the Navy requires him to bring to HMS Raleigh). He filled in all the forms. He went off for countless interviews. He did all the intelligence and fitness tests (a lot of training to ensure he could do the running, the swimming and the press ups). He passed everything with flying colours. He has mapped out his own future and done it with practically no assistance from his parents.
But the pride cannot extinguish the sadness. I begin to understand my friends’ distress when their children go to the university. Though, these days, that doesn’t usually mean a permanent separation. Their children will be back for the holidays and, once they have graduated, will be likely to return home, armed with enormous debt, for a great many more years. Still, I do see that the sudden absence of one who has never been absent before can be a cause of real distress. I must try, and I will do so, to be a lot more sympathetic when my friends wail about their lost children.
The picture, by the way, was taken just over four years ago. Zane was thirteen. That is how I will remember him.