Twenty years ago was halfway to good bye.

My oldest child was a little boy, it was his ninth birthday, and I pondered on the pages of the newspaper about his half-spent youth, about how that magic trek from birth to adulthood was half gone, about how my opportunities to be his dad were half gone.

That was 20 years ago today.

And today he turns 29, and for more than a decade he has been away, his own man, on his own journey, making his own mark.

What has come since then was then unimaginable, and his life’s unfolding mystery has been like everyone’s, unseeable and grand, the hand of Providence writ large across it.

He swaps texts with the governor, has congressmen’s personal numbers on his phone, enjoys the confidences of ministers and millionaires. He has professional skills and personal graces and is in the bold flower of young adulthood, moving from achievement to achievement, nothing seemingly beyond his grasp.

Soon he will be a husband and father himself.

And as he begins his thirtieth year I remember those boyhood days, when I fretted about missed dinners and opportunities, about time slipping through my grasp like water, about the dreams of fatherhood I had entertained in my own youth, and which didn’t seem to be coming true in the way I had imagined. About my own shortcomings and failings.

I remember those days in a wistful way, as upon a treasure lost, a place and time never to be revisited, in a way known to every parent of an adult, who begins to realize that life is rich but tenuous, and that time sweeps away all the structure of our lives.

Twenty years after he was halfway between the delivery room and the front door, I realize that the genie was already out of the bottle then. Yes, circumstances of his life – my successes and my failures among them – would shape him to a degree, but his life was already and completely his life. The rocket was lit, the die were cast, he was going where he was going.

And on this birthday, I happily rejoice at where he has been, and where he will go.

He’s graduated a couple of times, he was for two years a missionary in Mexico, he has worked grunt jobs and good jobs, and now he is falling in love. He worked with me, and he went on to work for better, and now he wakes up each day with the opportunity to lend his efforts to a worthy cause. He is everything I could have imagined and so many things I never could have imagined.

He is also 2,000 miles away.

And as parents through time have learned, we don’t raise them to keep them home, we raise them to set them free, and sometimes when they fly they fly far. Opportunity there, high taxes here, the natural wanderlust that settled this continent and built this world.

We talked on the phone last night, he and me and two of his sisters, all linked up on cell phones many miles far distant. We talked and laughed, but there was distortion and echo, and the metaphor was plain, our lives allow us to be in touch, but not truly in touch, and save for the odd weekend or vacation, the horses of our fates have taken us far apart. We are each learning new ways and new situations and becoming new people.

Which all sounds sad, but it is purposeful, and the way of the world, and the common lot of humankind. We don’t raise them for ourselves, and we may not even raise them for them. We raise them because God gave them to us, and he has a plan for them, and our duty is to get them ready, to be the fertile soil into which they sink their roots as their branches spread where destiny would take them.

Twenty years ago I had hope, today I have wonder and awe. I cherish the tender moments of then and now, the bony hugs and tentative steps, the growing personality and courageous choices, the bits of memory and framed pictures.

Twenty years ago I pondered on what I would do, today I marvel at what he has done. I have seen the miracle of him and those who have followed him, I have been grateful for my small part in that miracle, my large portion of that love.

Twenty years ago I had no idea the giant this little boy would become.

Happy birthday, son.