I don't remember exactly where we were at the time. We were walking together on the sidewalk somewhere, just starting out or perhaps on our way home. You were seven or eight years old.
I recall quite vividly the empty, sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, as so many past experiences and future apprehensions sloshed around inside my head like laundry in a washing machine.
What happened was something I'm certain you don't remember at all, but it's something I will never forget. You were chattering away as you always did and still do today. Your stream of consciousness may have even been a bit of a nuisance to me then, although it is positively music to me now.
You had to walk more quickly with your shorter legs to keep up with my adult gait. And knowing how much you enjoyed holding my hand whenever we walked together, I instinctively reached down to take your hand in mine. Until then, I had successfully convinced myself that I only held your hand because that was the way you liked to walk with your father.
Then it happened. Without any warning. You ever so gently pulled your hand back, signaling to me that you no longer felt comfortable holding my hand on the street. I released my grip and let go of your hand. You must have sensed my disappointment. You said something quickly to comfort me, such as, "I don't know if it's for always…but just for now."
I pretended not to mind. But inside, my heart ached. "I'm not ready for you to grow up."
I pretended not to mind. I tried to hide my disappointment. But inside, my heart ached. "I'm not ready for you to grow up," I said to you in my mind. Then as we walked on unattached, I recalled how painful it had been for me on your first day of nursery school.
"Just walk out quickly and don't look back," the nursery school teacher coaches me after you became engrossed with one of the new shiny riding trucks.
I try to follow her instructions. I unsuccessfully resist the impulse to glance over my shoulder. I am almost at the door when your radar picks up my impending escape. You lunge for my leg. The teacher gently pulls you back and urges me forward. Although your face is drenched in tears, you do not cry out loud.
"Just go," the teacher instructs me. "He'll be fine. Trust me."
My head tells me she is right. I assure you that I will return later to pick you up after school. I manage to propel myself through the door, out to the street and into my car. Then I bury my face in my hands and weep.
I cry for the pain of separation that I know you are suffering. I shed tears for my own torment from your growing up. And I grieve for that cherubic infant and toddler who would no longer spend his days at home with, or waiting for, me.
Just because you are our youngest child, I tell myself, does not mean that you should not grow up. This is the way of the world. Children mature and go off to school. I dry my tears, drive home and then lie to Mommy that all went smoothly.
When you let go of my hand that day, I remember thinking to myself, this is the next step. You are becoming independent. I wouldn't want it to be any other way. I just wished it wouldn't happen so soon. I wasn't ready for you to need me any less than before.
After you let go of my hand, my mind raced ahead, as well. I knew you would one day enroll in an out-of-town yeshiva and move into a dormitory, continuing your march towards independence. Letting go of my hand was only a small step in your long journey towards manhood. It was a journey I wanted you to take. I did not want to hold you back. But I sensed then that each step along the path of your maturation would be difficult for me. Unlike your first day of nursery school, it is I who would be left behind.
I am reminded of that sidewalk scene today because next week I will hold your hand once more, as I escort you down the aisle towards the chupah. And I want to share with you some of my thoughts and feelings as we approach the most important day of your life.
Mommy and I feel that your bride is as stunning inside as she is outside. Our hopes, dreams, and prayers for you both are boundless, and our hearts are bursting with pride.
Deep inside, however, there is a place in my heart where I harbor a wish that I could just stop the clock -- or, better yet -- turn it back. I wish I could turn it back to the days when I would throw you into the air and catch you in my arms as you squealed with delight. Or, to the days when you would scamper up my body as if I were a tree and then perch yourself on my shoulders for a ride. Or, to the nights when I would lay down with you at bedtime to review your day, read you a story, and listen to your kriat shema. Or, to the times when we would explore museums and parks, sometimes with Mommy and your older siblings, and sometimes by ourselves. Or, to any one of those quiet moments when the two of us were alone and you would ask me about everything and nothing, as we created a bond that was stronger than even I realized at the time.
I have let go of you so many times over the years, and it has not gotten easier each time. In some ways it gets more difficult.
But one thing I have learned that gives me some comfort is that the more often I let go, the tighter we embrace the next time we meet.
When I will let go of your hand once more next week under your chupah, it will be to make room for someone else. As you lurch forward, next week, towards the ultimate independence of building your own bayit ne'eman, your own faithful house, take the advice your nursery school teacher gave to me, years ago: Don't look back. I may be tearful but I'll be alright. I'll have so many family members and friends to celebrate with me that I won't cry for long. And I will already be looking forward to your next visit home -- together with your bride -- when I will give you a great big hug and kiss as you walk in the door.