Mike Kerrigan: What I learned on my 'first' college visit with my son

It’s funny how a small corner of the earth can have outsized relevance in your life. For me, it’s a swing set on a playground at a Charlottesville, Virginia elementary school.

It was spring 2007, and I decided to take my six-year-old son Joe on a weekend trip to the University of Virginia, my alma mater. Not a college visit in the traditional sense, the kind parents often take with their high school-aged children. No time like the present, I figured, to get the boy to start bleeding Cavalier orange and blue. We gassed up my truck and headed north for Charlottesville.

It was the first trip I had taken with Joe, just a father and his eldest son. Usually not much of a planner, I was excited for this particular adventure and sketched out every detail in advance. I knew some of the highlights wouldn’t be of immediate interest to him, but I had hope. Like the ritual of the liturgy, I wanted my son to become familiar with something dear to me, even if he didn’t fully understand. We rolled into our hotel late Friday evening and hit the rack.

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I took Joe to my favorite breakfast spot first thing Saturday where he, then a picky eater, played with more than ate his food. I showed him my dorm and fraternity house, neither of which captured his fancy, and then the bar where I’d worked in college. We even went to a lacrosse game, a sport I then thought he might like. Joe took it all in with a serene countenance but didn’t seem smitten.

If you make the most of the moments you have by choosing to be fully present in them, your life will be rich indeed.

Then the tour took a more personal turn. I showed him the spot where I’d first laid eyes on his mother, my wife Devin, in the fall of 1993. The law school classroom where I registered for and feigned interest in family law just to be close to her. The spot on the lawn where I asked her to marry me. So many memories.

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All of this registered with my son, but without the resonance I expected. Worse, we were running out of things to do, and it was barely four in the afternoon, with another day still to fill.

Exasperated, I asked Joe what he wanted to see. I won’t soon forget his response: "I wouldn’t mind finding a swing set."

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That’s when it hit me. In my seven years of college and law school at Virginia, I’d never visited a swing set. Why would I have? For a guy who thought he knew every inch of his college town, the question caught me flat-footed: I had no earthly idea where to look.

Eventually, I remembered the Venable Elementary School on 14th Street, something I’d passed countless times as an undergraduate but never really noticed. We parked in the lot, empty on a Saturday, and I pushed my son and watched him swing back and forth with glee. It was the joy I had sought for him on my terms, but he only found on his.

What did I learn on that trip? Plenty.

First, travel is great fun and often leads to happiness. But our world will always assure us greater bliss is just around the corner, a mere jaunt-to-the-mountains away. There’s nothing wrong with such adventures, but they’re not necessary to find joy.

Sure, we had a blast in Charlottesville, especially after resetting around the swing set. But joy was never any further from us than our swing set back home. We had, and have, everything we need. I just needed to remember it.

Second, as my mom loved telling me when I was growing up, if you want to give God a laugh, tell Him your plans. I mapped out every detail of that weekend, but you can’t plan joy any more than you can schedule spontaneity or demand loyalty. Do your best but stay flexible, and always remember what John Lennon said: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Third, there’s always a new way to look at things, no matter how much you think you know. All of life’s lasting treasures – Faith, love, learning – are like that. You can think you have them figured out, but suddenly when you least expect it, they give you so much more. Now when I find myself vexed by a problem I cannot seem to solve, I ask myself “where’s the swing set?” New perspectives lead to new insights, so find them. This was my most important lesson.

It’s important because from that unanticipated vantage point I saw a young couple in love, walking hand-in-hand down 14th Street. They didn’t notice me any more than I’d have noticed a middle-aged guy swinging his kid in the periphery at their age. But gazing at them I realized how it was only yesterday that Devin and I were the young couple, walking aimlessly about with our whole lives still out in front of us.

This reflection was timely, for indeed, life is an unearned gift of time, that most precious commodity this side of eternity. How loved we must be, to be given so great a gift – a life, measured in time -- so freely! Use it well, and not only when you’re young. Always.

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That’s what I learned in Charlottesville that really mattered. Whether you feel it or not, in the eyes of someone -- looking on from a swing set you don’t see -- you’re still the young person with everything out in front of you. Age doesn’t matter. That happens, quickly. Always being in the moment does matter. That’s a choice. And if you make the most of the moments you have by choosing to be fully present in them, your life will be rich indeed.

I’m sure I would have missed this important lesson if Joe hadn’t made his old man stop at the swings in Charlottesville. For that, I will always be grateful.

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