My 23 year-old son Dan stood in the doorway, ready to say goodbye to his home. His rucksack was packed and ready for the journey. In a couple of hours he was going to fly out to France. He was going to be away for at least a year to learn a foreign language and experience life in a foreign country.
It was a milestone in Danís life, a transition from school days to adulthood. When we were to say goodbye, I looked closely at his face. I would like to provide him with some good advice that would last longer than just here and now.
But not a sound came over my lips. There was nothing that broke the silence in our house by the sea. I could hear the sharp cry of the seagulls outside, while they circled over the ever-changing and roaring surf. Inside I stood motionless and silent, looking into my sonís green eyes with that penetrating look.
I knew that this wasnít the first time I let such an opportunity pass me by, and that made everything even more difficult. When Daniel was a little boy, I followed him to the bus on his first day in preschool. I felt the excitement in his hand that held mine when the bus came round the corner. I saw the colour spread in his cheeks when the bus stopped. He looked at me - just like he did now.
Whatís it like, Dad? Can I do it? Will I do all right? And then he boarded the bus and disappeared. The bus drove away. And I hadnít said a word.
Some ten years later, a similar episode took place. His mother and I drove him to the university where he was going to study. On the first night he went out with his new friends, and when we met the next morning, he threw up. He was sick with glandal fever, but we thought he had a hangover.
Dan was ill in bed in his room when I wanted to say goodbye. I tried to come up with something to say, something that could inspire courage and self-confidence in him in this new era of his life.
Again the words let me down. I mumbled something like "I hope youíre better, Dan." Then I turned around and left.
Now I stood in front him and recalled all the times when I hadnít made use of those opportunities. How often has that not happened to all of us? A son graduates or a daughter is married. We do what has to be done at those kinds of ceremonies, but we donít pull our children aside to tell them what they have meant to us. Or what they might expect of the future.
There was one chance I didnít miss, however. One day I told Dan that the biggest mistake in my life was that I had not taken a yearís sabbatical after I graduated from university. I could have travelled around the world, because I believed that was the best way to get a deeper insight to life. When first I was married and began working, the dream about living in another culture soon had to be shelved.
Dan thought about it. His friends told him it was crazy of him to put off his career. But he quickly realised that it probably was not that bad an idea. And after he graduated from university, he worked as a waiter, a messenger, and an assistant in a bookstore, so he could make enough money to go to Paris.
The night before his departure, I lay twisting and turning in bed, puzzling about what to tell him. I couldnít think of anything. Maybe, I thought, it wasnít really necessary after all. Seen in the perspective of an entire life, how important is it that a father tells his son what thinks of him deep inside?
But when I stood in front of Dan, I knew that it really did mean something. My father and I were fond of each other, and yet I have never felt sorry that he never expressed his feelings for me in words, that I didnít have a memory of such a moment. Now I felt my palms becoming moist, and my throat draw together. Why does it have to be so difficult to tell your son what you feel? My mouth was dry, and I knew that I could only say a few words.
"Dan," I finally stammered out, "if I had the choice myself, I would have chosen you."
That was all I could say. I was not sure he understood what I meant. But then he stepped towards me and put his arms around me. For a short while the world and everything in it disappeared, there were only Dan and me in our home by the sea.
He was about to say something, but my eyes welled up and I didnít catch what he said. I only noticed his stubble pressing against my face. Then the moment was over. I went to work and a couple of hours later, Dan took off with his girlfriend.
It all happened a while ago. I think about him when I walk along the beach. Many miles away he may be hurrying across Boulevard St. Germain, strolling through the halls of Louvre, or having a drink at a cafť on the left bank of the Seine.
What I told Dan was clumsy and commonplace. It was nothing. And yet it was everything.