Monday, June 11, 2007

Tears for Years: A Brothers' Youthful Departure

Time must have a stop, as Aldous Huxley once wrote...

There are moments that occur which will remain ever etched in our memories. Although Proust may have remembered ALL, we mere mortals must be content with those moments that define the transitions of our lives. These, as the metaphor reminds us, freeze the frame and time appears to slow down, image by image, all around us.

Such, at least, was my experience last week when I found myself in the Lincoln School auditorium for the school's farewell to its departing teachers, students, families and Joshua Shumshere Leslie, my son.

How, I wondered, did we get to this point? How could it be that Joshua at 16 was already leaving Lincoln, leaving our home, departing from my/our life in Kathmandu?

Wasn't I the dad who constantly told Shakun when the boys were toddlers that if she ever wanted to send them to boarding school (having been educated in one herself...) that I, like the obssessive mother in the endearing childrens' book, 'Runaway Bunny', would go teach at that school, too.

Yet there I was with Joshua leaning against the wall of the auditorium, a few hundred fellow students, their teachers, some of their parents, some of my closest friends, while he was openly crying as he faced the moment of his departure from Lincoln.

The school band was playing, the kids singing, the boistrous mood that Lincoln creates for such events was in full swing -- while I had my arm around my son who was unashamedly weeping, then laughing, then sobbing in front of the elementary school kids who were looking up and asking each other, "Why is Josh crying?" I could see friends and teachers around the auditorium looking towards us asking me in their own caring & concerned non-verbal way, 'is Josh ok?"

Luke Davis, one of Josh's earliest Big Brothers when he first joined LS in 3rd grade, ten years & a few lifetimes ago, son of some of our closest friends, Chris & Dale, and now a teacher himself at LS, as well as Josh & Ez's football coach & friend, came by and rubbed Josh's shoulder in affection & support. Suzi Burns, LS' own earth mother incarnate, long-term Kathmandu resident, mentor to the fringe & lonely kids at LS, as well as dispenser of kleenex on such emotional occasions, came by twice to make sure that Josh was well-stocked w/ those soft pieces of paper in which we store, then free ourselves of, some of our most private & painful emotions.

By the time Josh's name was called up, after the beautiful songs ('Stand by Me' by Europ & Ryan Shrestha), a solo by Laureen Purnell, and scenes from the middle school's 'Mid-Summer's Night's Dream', he was more composed. His 6'4" frame standing taller, his face looking past these fleeting moments ahead to the consequences of the decision that he'd made to attend Northfield Mount Hermon to redo his 11th grade, then 12th before starting college in the United States.

Much to our surpise, Josh decided in January that he wanted a new challenge, a new environment, away from the political uncertainty of Kathmandu and, possibly, to start on his journey toward his larger life beyond the world of Nepal that Shakun and I had offered him since his birth in Bangkok in October 1990. As I've said to others, I'm the American father who couldn't offer his son America. After 24 years in Nepal, it's getting harder, possibly impossible, to make that journey home myself...

Maybe in some deeper way, Josh has known that he needs/wants to grow beyond the Nepali world that we've created for him. He knows he's between cultures in a way that doesn't allow him to be wholly at home in either the Nepali or American worlds. He knows, as well, that he can communicate b/n them & empathize with them in ways that other kids who are not from such blended stock don't know.

But he also knows the alone-ness of this world. Along w/ the larger challenges & opportunities in the world outside, I think he understands that he must step toward this future on his own, that no one, not even his loving parents or affectionate brother or friends, can do this for him. His alone-ness has a birthright, like a Biblical character. Like his namesake, Joshua, or those larger than life quasi-historical Biblical figures who embody the stories by which generations of western culture have drawn inspiration and questions about the purpose and meaning of our lives...

Or, after scores of times lying with his brother, Ezra, and friends upstairs on the floor of the family room watching "Lord of the Rings", the noble quest that Frodo embodies has penetrated the deeper consciousness of Joshua. He carries a different ring -- but a ring we each carry through our lives. Each ring has its own power and risk. In his always thoughtful, deliberate way, Josh understands that he, too, must leave the Shire and find his way on his own journey, supported by those who love him, but who cannot free him of his quest.

"Joshua Leslie", his name is called by one of the teachers and slowly with steady, deliberat movement Josh leaves his niche along the wall and steps out toward the stage and his future passage. After all of the names of families that had been called, there is a strange, independent ring to the sound of only one name in the air. Again, that a-lone-ness that Josh is inhabiting on this immense journey from his home in Kathmandu to a boarding school in western Massachusetts. Yet, there is a dignity in our son, an adolescent grandeur (if I may say so...), in his walking up by himself to accept the puffy cloth heart amulet that the school has made for each of their departing friends, students & teachers. (LS, once again, at its best in its nurturing environment...)

Leah, our six year old, by this time, has come to stand with Josh & me along the wall. But when we come behind the stage to stand by Josh, he shakes his head with a pained smile, wanting -- knowing? -- that he must do this by himself. So, Ms. Leah & I stand behind the curtain, where, it appears, all parents must reside, and watch the last moments of this gracious & loving rite of high school passage.

Then Leah & I sit on a folding chair in the shadows as Leah hugs me and cries, "I don't want Joshua to go!!", wailing this time & again, until Josh comes back and with his huge frame leans over to hug us both, tears flowing freely for each of us, Leah's pained voice echoing in the darkness behind the public stage. Ms. Aruna, LS's art teacher and Shakun's cousin, comes by, looks hurt for us and gives a hug, as well, to this family tableau of separation and departure. The fabric is being pulled, wrenched, in new directions and the strength of the love is the emotion that binds as the immediate reality dissolves.

As every moment must end, we stand up as a first step on a larger voyage of individual lives. Josh goes back on to the stage to hug many high school friends who are all together understanding that this year of Lincoln is over and that the next iteration will not include everyone with whom they have shared this past year. I take Leah back to Ms. Nicole,her loving teacher and our friend, beside her kindergarten class with Maya asking, "Is Josh going forever?" while Leah's tear continue to spread, a bit more calmly, as she joins the children she knows best.

I walk to the back of the auditorium to watch the final scenes of the school year on the stage. Proud of Josh's affection for so many and theirs for Joshua. There are short queues of friends and long hugs with many. The affection is real and touching. Then, there is the boys line, after the girls. Josh's friends Narayan, Sudip, Silash & Adish, then Ezra's friends Daniel and Lyle. Then, Ezra, his 14 year old brother, friend, companion, football mate and, in the ironic way of brotherhood, spiritual guide.

The two young men hug with a hard, firm embrace, arms wrapped around each others shoulders. The 6'4" and the 6'1" teenagers holding tight to this moment, realizing that they will never share this stage of life again. That the early morning wake-ups for the 6:10 band bus will be solitary from now on. That the football practices and SAISA competititons will no longer be for both the Leslie brothers. That the excitement of the Liverpool and Man Utd games will be communicated on Face Book and through the internet, not watching on TV in the same home late at night. That the love that they have created will have to bridge much greater distances after the summer. That the stories of their lives won't be shared on the long bus rides home from school in the evenings through the strikes & bandhs & constant political uncertainties that have constituted their unique school lives in Kathmandu over the past decade.

So I watch, tears in my eyes, as well. Who are these boys? These young men? Are they really of my body & soul? Did Shakun & I really create this new life that will carry beyond us, carry us beyond, who appear to have already offered so much to so many other lives beyond ours?

They don't stop hugging. They must be holding each other for five, maybe seven, minutes. I can only observe. This is their moment. They have known this intimate world of Lincoln School for these ten years together. I am the father, a distant presence in this young school world. As Yeats said of a different place and different time, "That is no world for old men, the young in each other's arms..."

Coleen, the sylvan presence of academic promise & potential, a creature of Colorado's nature and American idealism, one of the most impressive souls during the boys' lives at Lincoln, comes up the steps, looks me keenly in the eyes and says, "I tried to come up quietly, gracefully to give you a hug." I say, "You did as well as Audrey Hepburn would. I'm just standing here watching my boys in wonder.", "I know," she says, "that's why I've come...". This wondrous human instinct for empathy, affection and understanding.

My tears are moist, the world seems beautiful, the pain so real. Josh & Ez let go of each other, slowly, carefully, looking at each other deeply. They keep their arms around each other as they walk up, almost shyly, up toward me, lead by emotional gravitational force, the still center pole of the family life they have known, until this moment, all their lives.

Josh is shy, tears reflecting the light & shadows of the room, his head tilted down. Ez, his eyes dancing, laughing and crying in equal measure. Full of love, sympathy, ache and joy. Brothers, we are, he knows. Brothers, we will always be.

The bodies disperse. The school busses begin to move. The year ends.

While the spirit of these departing souls linger in all of our minds for, no doubt, as long as we continue to remember. For love is a form of memory... And memory is a form of love...

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