A mother’s goodbye to her pilot son: ’Everything that matters has been said’

Rachel Wallace-Oberle watches her son pack a U-Haul and leave for a new job as a pilot far away
Rachel Wallace-Oberle
Rachel with her son, Barrett
Rachel with her son, Barrett

A U-Haul trailer doesn’t ordinarily evoke emotion. I’ve passed hundreds of them on the road without a second thought. But the U-Haul trailer in my driveway is decidedly different.

A while ago, an airline company near Thunder Bay, Ont., phoned. Last year, after adding ratings to your recently acquired commercial pilot’s licence, you sent them your resumé. A few months later, you decided to rent a car and made the 17-hour trip to find out more about the company and meet the chief pilot and staff. You came home filled with hope and enthusiasm; a position would soon open and there was a good chance you’d be hired.

Things didn’t go as expected. You didn’t say much, you never do, but I knew how disappointed you were. I encouraged you to keep in touch with the company and worried that you were too disheartened to pursue a position with them. “Don’t let them forget about you,” I kept saying.

I seriously underestimated your pluck. The chief pilot called to offer you a job and remarked that your persistence paid off. Apparently, while I’d been lecturing you to stay on the company’s radar, you’d been calling them and faxing your resumé every month.

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And then the U-Haul showed up.

I should have known. Your determination is fierce. In public school you took phonics classes and worked endlessly with tutors to catch up to your classmates because of chronic childhood ear infections and some hearing loss. In Grade 5, you delivered handmade flyers to neighbours, advertising lawn-raking services for two dollars. In Grade 6, you decided to save for a set of walkie-talkies and got a paper route.

Throughout high school, you washed dishes at a local restaurant, collected eggs at a chicken farm, bagged feed at a feed mill, worked at a hardware store and helped on your grandparents’ farm. At 17, you started taking flying lessons and, after graduating from Grade 12, financed your way through flight school by installing carpet and flooring.

I remember when you came down the stairs from your bedroom several years ago, frustrated and upset. You couldn’t afford to put yourself through flight school as fast as you wanted; you worked during the day, studied at night and flew whenever you could. “It’s going to take forever to get my pilot’s licence,” you said glumly.

I tried to be encouraging and said how proud I was of you, but the words felt inadequate. Part of me wished I could write a cheque to take care of everything, yet a greater part of me recognized it would deny you the opportunity to become independent and self-sufficient. That moment is stamped on my heart—a mother bird, torn, nudging her young into a bewildering new world.

Then the company phoned, and we had a going-away party for you. Friends, neighbours and family came. Your dad planted flowers, stripped and re-stained the deck and put up balloons. I cleaned, painted windowsills, cooked copious amounts of food and put together care packages for you.

It’s 1:30 a.m. The four of us gather solemnly on the driveway to say goodbye. Starry pinpricks fasten a fragment of moon against the dark sky.

The U-Haul trailer is so loaded with stuff that it clears the ground by inches. I can hardly imagine you safely managing a 17-hour trip with it. The day before, without telling me, you hauled my bathroom scale out to the driveway and lowered the trailer’s hitch on it to measure the tongue weight.

Dad takes pictures in his housecoat and slippers. Your younger brother, Thomas, hugs you hard.

My precious first son, everything I have ever felt and hoped and dreamed for you crowds in my throat so that I can hardly breathe. Before you go, I want to wrap up all my love and motherly wisdom into shining words that will buoy you through this great adventure and beyond—weighty words that you’ll carry always.

But everything that matters has already been said as you grew from a spirited, ambitious little boy into a fearless, principled young man. All I can think to say is, “Don’t forget to floss.”

I know you understand. And it’s enough.

This article appears in print in the October 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear son…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

The piece is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.