Michael and I sat at the bar at the club this afternoon talking about tomorrow, what he packed and what he has planned. He leaves for Cuba in the morning for about ten days.
He’s not inexperienced at traveling. At fifteen he spent ten days in Ireland; at twenty we trained across Siberia, and the following year we walked across Spain. He’s been around the block (well, not really because my road is on the water and we don’t really have a “block” per se—but go with the metaphor). An avid reader and researcher for all things which come into his interest parameters, he is well prepared.
But, you know, I’m the dad. So I’ve been reading articles about Cuba, its crime and tourism, and how Americans are faring with djt in office. I Google-Earthed the place where he’s staying with seven other artists for his residency, I forwarded to him several articles about the currency fraud down there, the petty crime—you know, all happy articles. At my sister’s suggestion he wrote our niece who spent a few days there. “That’s two days more than you’ve been there” I told him. He knows several people who have been there and talks to them regularly, and his Spanish is pretty decent, though I suggested he learn the phrase, “Please don’t speak so fast.”
This morning at the Y while on the treadmill, I thought long about the past couple of decades—more—and all we’ve been through, and I tried to figure out from where he got this drive to wander the world and see as much as he can. Particularly as an artist to catch it in his own way. Anyone who knows my son will back me up when I say he is the kindest person you will ever meet, patient and very quiet. He immerses himself in whatever he is involved in, and is generally more ready for what comes his way than I ever was. Perhaps it is his generation, I thought. They’re clearly more savvy with technology to figure out what needs to be done to get where they want to go.
The son of close friends of mine climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. When the young man’s father told me of the plans, I reminded him that at his son’s age he took off for a summer to cycle around Ireland, followed by cycling around the United States. Another friend’s daughter is right now on the meseta of the Camino de Santiago, alone, bearing the heat and distance, having the time of her life. When my friend was his daughter’s age he was driving into Mexican villages and hiking past rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert.
How easily we forget.
My niece is shuffling off to New Zealand for a year, and doing so with the grace and confidence of a New Yorker popping over to Jersey for the day. This is how small the world is now; as a result, this is how neurotic parents have become, reaching for the anti-anxiety meds while at the same time trying to show our children it is no big deal, we absolutely know they’ll be safe, and see you when you get back. Gulp.
So we had a going away drink at the club and talked about Cuba, about his readiness, of which he was vague and quiet, though he talked with an air of someone who had triple-checked his list and truly was ready. I told him he only needed to put up with my questioning another few hours and then he’d be on his way to Miami to the “Cuba-Ready” desk, and on to Havana. At that exact time tomorrow he’ll be landing in Havana.
I’m excited for him. We watched some golf, talked to the pro, had a drink and some odd flat-pretzel mix, and I thought to myself, twenty-six years old. Unbelievable what our children’s generation is doing.
My plane landed in Dakar in the late afternoon, and I had no idea if my friend to whom I had written that I’d be coming even received my mail, let alone crossed Senegal to meet me. Well, she had and she did, and that night when she went back to stay at the Peace Corps house I checked into a hotel near the ocean and listened to the blending of French and Wolof and Pulaar drifting up from the courtyard outside my room. I ended up going for a walk and passed shops open late where music filtered through the streets and everyone, I mean absolutely everyone, stared at me. I went back to my room after midnight and lay on the bed with the smell of the salt air coming from the Atlantic.
I was terrified. I was twenty-six. It was the first day of a long trip that included just three weeks in eastern Senegal, a return to Dakar, and then some time drifting down through the continent, alone. It was exciting; it was stupid. I was alive, truly alive, and nothing about my life would be the same.
I was just a few months older than Michael is now. That was my job then—to terrorize my parents by following my songlines into God knows where, and it is my son’s job now. He does it well, by the way. A few days ago a friend asked me if I was more nervous about Michael headed to Cuba for nine days or to Ireland in October for a month. That was no contest:
“Ireland,” I said.
“Really?” he said, thinking the opposite would be more likely.
“Absolutely. I was just in Ireland for nine days and the roads suck there—people die! They drive like maniacs and the hedges come right to the edge of the road—I know! I walked them! Give me a good communist regime for nine days anytime.”
I know this for certain about him going: If he didn’t, he’d regret it forever.
Geez, the regrets: I never worked in a castle in Austria, never rode to Coos Bay, Oregon. I never went horseback-riding in the Rockies, and I never made it out to Monterrey.
I never canoed the length of the Chesapeake Bay, and I never…
and I never…
The list of ambitions we wanted to do and didn’t could fill volumes. Perhaps that is what makes the few times we get the chance to actually go so much more memorable. I have no complaints about my life, and I’m pretty confident neither does my son, so far.
“So you’re going there to take pictures?” I asked him when he told me he was going.
“Well, son,” I said, looking around his work room in the house where all of his photographs and canvases lean against the walls. “You take abstract photos. Of water.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you. But, can’t you take those pictures here along the Bay—I mean, they’re abstract. It’s water, for God’s sake. Just tell everyone it is Cuban water and you can save a lot of money.”
He laughed. “I’ll take a few of my Cuban neighbors, and maybe some colorful buildings.”
“Ah, well then of course.” I was joking, naturally, but it wasn’t until today when leaving the club that I knew he was ready to go and that he would do it right, he would do it his way.
“Honestly, I have no agenda at all for when I’m there. I’ll play it by ear,” he told me.
Perfect. I mean, really, what kind of damn-fool amateur traveler would say such a thing?!
Vaya con Dios mi hijo.