I’m down to my last marble. You probably already suspected this, as I’ve been losing my marbles for years. But this time I really mean it. I’m down to my very last one. Tomorrow the jar will be empty. I don't quite know how to feel about it.
Thomas turns 18. We will be celebrating with dinner out followed by birthday cake at home. While we celebrate, Karen and I will be holding back tears. We can’t believe our youngest son is grown up.
Last Saturday, our church hosted an event called, “6 Things Every Kid Needs Over Time.” We used material from Orange, a think-tank out of Atlanta that is helping churches and families do a better job of influencing the next generation together. One of their visuals is the marble jar, filled with 936 marbles. It’s a physical representation of the time we have to raise a kid-- 936 marbles representing the number of weeks between birth and age 18. It’s both a brutal reminder of how quickly the days, weeks and years fly by, and an encouragement to make the most of the ones we have left. Like a man with a dying wish, or a basketball team setting up for the last shot, the urgency of a countdown brings focus and intentionality.
I have less than 24 hours. I can’t even fathom it, so I’m sitting at the computer writing about it to process the emotions.
I’ve actually had roughly 1212 marbles in my jar if you include all the weeks since my oldest son Jon was born in 1992. Tim came along 21 months later in `94 and then Thomas a few years later in `98. Time went by fast. Their childhood and teen years were so busy that sometimes it was impossible to breathe, let alone count marbles. One spring, between the three boys, we had five teams and 70 baseball games from March through June. And yes, I know the marble thing is only symbolic. They haven’t really left yet. In fact, as I write this, Jon and Tom are upstairs in their bedroom, shouting at the TV as they play each other in FIFA. This summer Tim will be home, too, and all five of us will squeeze into our small house, get on each others’ nerves, empty our refrigerator, and fill our kitchen sink with dirty dishes, Nevertheless, the symbolism is powerful. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.
It helps to spend some time reminiscing. Where should I start? I remember the day we brought Thomas home from Swedish Medical Center in Denver. It was a beautiful Saturday. We lived in seminary housing. A swarm of kids and moms gathered around his car seat, staring at his little face as we carried him into our apartment. In a story that has reached mythical proportions in our family, it was also the morning of my fantasy baseball draft. It was scheduled for 10:00am, and the doctor was late releasing Karen from hospital care. The hospital was five minutes from our apartment. “Um, would you mind if I went home and made my first pick…” Let’s just say I have the best wife ever, and I won that year. I give Thomas the credit.
I remember the time I was in Mexico on a mission trip when Thomas got appendicitis. He was five. It was before we had cell phones, and I was staying at a church that didn’t have a phone either. Somehow Karen got in touch with me from the hospital. She was frantic. I can remember the surreal experience of standing in a tiny Tecate' apartment, surrounded by non-English speakers watching Mexican TV, trying to talk to her over the noise. Tom’s situation was complicated by the fact that he’d been dealing with another infection already, and one of his kidneys is half the size it should be. No one was certain what was going on. “He doesn’t seem to be getting better,” she trembled. We were frightened. It took me over 60 hours to get home. By the time I did, Thomas was fine. I took the picture above..
I remember taking him on his “coming of age” getaway. It’s something I did with each of the boys—a special trip with Dad to talk about the birds and the bees, but more importantly to build memories. I bought backstage passes to a Switchfoot concert in Philadelphia. I didn’t tell Thomas what we were doing until we walked up to the club and saw the concert sign on the door. We met everyone in the band and heard the most amazing sound check of “Dark Horses.” We ventured into the streets of the city late that night to find the lead singer, Jon Foreman, singing on a street corner.
Those were “big deal” moments, but what I treasure even more are the smaller, more ordinary ones that filled the days. There were countless baseball games, basketball games, tennis matches, car rides, vacations, inside jokes, campfire stories, holidays, and dinner laughs. We’ve rooted passionately for our favorite sports teams, and sat down together to watch our favorite shows. (We are still one episode behind in The Walking Dead). I’ve had the incalculable gift of being both father and youth pastor, so I got to share all the youth group activities that have shaped his life – innumerable retreats, conferences, mission trips, weekly events, and an endless array of friendships. I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.
Nor would I trade Thomas. He’s smart, athletic, clever, insightful, kind, and hilarious. He anonymously started a Twitter trend that overtook every high school in Frederick County, and another eponymous Twitter account that gives voice to Walkersville High’s most famous landmark (a giant puddle that eternally rules the parking lot). He aced AP Calculus without studying much. He leads worship. He writes music. He sings and plays like it's his sixth sense. He got accepted into the songwriting program at a prestigious university located in the music capital of the world. His gifting is off the chain.
I feel this way about each of my sons. They blow me away with their talents, personalities and achievements. I have shelves and shelves of jars filled with memories. I am incredibly blessed to be their father. For 1212 weeks, I followed their firsts—first tooth, first day of school, first time driving by himself, first job, first college visit, first date. And now those “firsts” have come to an end—symbolically at least–with the “first day of adulthood” for the "last of the Anderson boys." Jon is 23. Tim is 21. Thomas is 17 and 364 days. The Anderson Crew is grown up. I'm proud of them, but I confess I'm also feeling a little lost--my identity and future in question--as I enter a new phase of life that I thought would never come. But it's here and it's okay. Time, as they say, waits for no man. Tomorrow we add one more official "man" to the times.
Thomas is ready. I’m not sure I am. My heart is full, but my jar is nearly empty, and I can hear the hollow, haunting, heart-rending sound of that last marble gently rolling across the counter and out the door. I'm not ready to see it go. I hope I've done okay.
I am losing my last marble, and I don’t know how to feel about it.