My transition from high school student to college student was full of major changes. In the space about 36 hours I went from a resident of my parent's home, living in a comfortable and familiar community, to being exclusively responsible for my own care and feeding. Oh yeah- there's the whole college education thing to consider too.
In an effort to ease my adjustment from high school to college, I opted to attend “Pre-College” the summer prior to my first full semester in college. I can remember feeling as though I blinked my eyes and went from my high school commencement ceremony to carrying the contents of my childhood bedroom up flights of steps. I recall listening for familiar accents or music blaring from speakers that was familiar enough to spark a conversation with the parade of new faces in my dorm. Assisting me with this transition was my father. That was odd. Family tradition dictated that my mother was the one responsible for such undertakings. But this time, my father insisted that he help his son (me) make this step into the world. Surely something must be afoot. Don't get me wrong. My father typically weighed in on the major events and decisions in my life—but rarely was he so…purposeful.
Sooner than either of us probably realized, it was time for my father to return to New Jersey and for me to figure things out on my own at school. And while the father-son bonding time was cool, it seemed that our interaction was all groundwork for one of my father's legendary discussions. Moments before my father departed, he asked me to take a seat and talk (read: listen). I thought this strange because this was “my” dorm room…but I was willing to play along. As is tradition in our family, my father went into his now- storied mantra titled “Four and No More.” Essentially, my father indicated that he was willing to support my college experience for four years. Any education beyond that period would have to be funded by me. That was sobering, but I felt confident I could handle my end of the bargain.
But then my notoriously predictable father did something unexpected. He reached for my overnight kit. I remember thinking, “OK-where is he going with this one?”
Notably nervous and unusually awkward, my father placed the overnight kit on the bed we were sitting beside. All of the contents seemed to be there. Toothpaste, deodorant, toothbrush, but there were some new additions. Square-shaped packages with circular objects in them—condoms.
My father said something like this, “Son, I want you to know that I realize you are in college and will likely meet some attractive young women while you are here—you may even meet your wife (as fate would have it—I did). You may fall in love and become intimate (Dad-speak for intercourse). You will both have your whole lives ahead of you and son, this is not a time for you to become a parent.”
I nodded and wholeheartedly agreed—on both accounts. I was looking forward to meeting a young co-ed and no, I didn't want to get anyone pregnant. Just as I thought the coast was clear he went further.
“I also want you to stay healthy—when I was growing up there were things guys could catch that could make them sick.” (Whew, just another reprise of the VD talk— one we've had before.) But still, he wasn't finished.
“There are things out there than can not only make you sick—but they can kill you—that's why you'll need to use these—every time---no matter what---seriously.”
I remember a shock of sweat hitting my forehead and hands. You see this was the late 1980s. AIDS was just emerging on the national landscape and while I was not a member of risk population (little of which was really known at the time), my father knew enough to insist that I protect myself and others.
Now known as “The Conversation” that talk ranks among the most awkward and insightful experiences I've ever shared with my father. My father's knowledge of AIDS probably extended no further a magazine article or evening news broadcast. But he had the guts to humble himself and have a tough conversation about something that could potentially save his son's life. For that, I am truly grateful.
I am now a parent myself. As I watch my kids grow, I wonder how and when I will muster the words to have a similar discussion. I take peace in the knowledge that my father's words rang in my ears throughout my life. I look forward to the privilege and responsibility of having this conversation with my kids in the future as well.