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Dadfector

The Last Bus

11:55 AM EDT on June 14, 2023

STOCKTON, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: A school bus carries children at sunrise on Bethel Island, one of the residential islands surrounded by levees that hold back the higher waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta on September 29, 2005 west of Stockton, California. Officials say that the dikes of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are in worse shape than those that broke and flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. There is a two-in-three chance that a catastrophic earthquake or storm in the next 50 years may damage the levees enough to cause the kind of destruction that engulfed New Orleans, according to experts. Such an event would affect the water supply that serves two-thirds of California and create a nightmare traffic jam on Highway 4, the two-lane road that would be the major evacuation route, if it is not damaged beyond usability. Approximately 1,600 miles of levees protect the delta's islands, which lie well below sea-level, and most were built more than 100 years ago. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images

All through her early childhood, my daughter wanted to be a school bus. Her favorite toy was a Little Tikes school bus. She dressed as a school bus for Halloween, in a homemade costume my wife made. She memorized the lyrics to “Bus Stop” by The Hollies, and would change the lyrics to any other song she knew so it would be about school buses. And whenever we were out and a school bus drove by, she’d gaze up at it in awe, like she was seeing the Pope in the flesh.

“You know, you’ll get to ride that bus one day,” we told her.

“I can’t wait!” she said. As with all kids her age, she didn’t trade in metaphors. She could not, would not, wait to go on the school bus. When her preschool had a truck touch—replete with bucket trucks, snowplows, and cranes—she went right for the school bus and sat it in the whole time. School buses have evolved since my childhood, but the core design remains roughly the same: cheap green upholstery, a dirty aisle, the hump row stationed above the rear wheels, and windows that are impossible to open. She savored all of that. If she played her cards right, one day she’d be sitting in that bus when it was moving

She did. After a few years of preschool, the big day arrived. We took our girl to the bus stop, which was located at the end of our block, atop a small hill. Just long enough of a walk to be arduous for a child, a small dog, or a hungover adult. We met the other parents. We met their kids. We had all the kids pose for photos. And then the bus crested over the hill, all yellow paint and flashing lights. “BUSSSS!” the kids all cried. 

The bus stopped at our gaggle. The door swung open and we watched our girl, for the first time, line up to board. We took our pictures, we watched the door close, and then just like that, our girl was gone. 

Thanks to having two more kids, we would return to that bus stop every school day for 12 straight years. I know this walk like I know the contours of my own body. I know prepping for the bus by making lunches, tying shoes, and nagging the kids to put on a jacket. I know the huge tree in the lot across the street from our house, which will rain down dead branches during any vigorous rainstorm. I know the Little Free Library kitty-corner from our house. I know the house at the top of the hill right where the bus stops, which has remained unoccupied virtually the entire time we’ve been here. Sometimes the kids play on the lawn there and no one comes out to scream at them. I know what the street up to the bus stop looks like in the fall, with leaf flakes clogging up the gutters. I know what it looks like in the winter, after a blizzard, with all the big footprints in the snow flanked by a tap dance chart of smaller footprints flanking them. I know what it looks like in the spring, with all the flowering trees in bloom: dogwoods, cherry blossoms, crabapples, and crape myrtles. I know what the kids look like every Halloween, and every Pajama Day, and every Field Day. I have a mental archive of this bus stop for every year, season, birth, life, and death. No one place in this world is static. Its defining characteristics may stay the same for years, but its days and nights do not

Nor do the players. The bus makes its usual rounds every year, but families come and families go and families grow. I’ve met dozens of other parents at the stop. I’ve met their kids. I’ve met their dogs. My dog has met their dogs. I have borne witness to generations turning over, all in this one place. I’ve watched the kids trade Pokemon cards and play Red Light Green Light while waiting. I’ve listened to other parents talk about their kids and their own lives. I’ve seen neighbors without kids walk by and wave hi to us. I’ve watched commuters fly through the bus stop to shortcut their way around traffic, with us parents going “Can you believe that guy?" I’ve watched kids, often my own, forget their instrument on a music day and their parents go sprinting back down the hill to retrieve it before it’s too late. I’ve watched my dog bark at the bus every time it appears, and then chase after it in suicidal fashion. I’ve watched Carter be scared of a neighbor’s dog, only for that dog to later become his best, and only, friend. I’ve watched Carter walk up the hill and stand by his best friend’s door, waiting for him to come out, and then whirlybirding his tail whenever he did. And I watched Carter stand outside his door one day this year, only to realize that his best friend was never coming back out of it. 

I’m speaking romantically here, but the truth is that going to the bus stop became a thoughtless ritual for us not long after my daughter's first day of school, to the point where I used to annually celebrate the school year ensuring I’ll have the rest of the day to myself. Sometimes we were late to the bus stop and would have to sprint up the hill, shouting ONE MORE! to the parents at the top, so that they could relay that message to the driver. Sometimes we missed the bus entirely. Sometimes—OK, a lot—I’d stare at my phone rather than talk to other parents, and then my wife would lightly chastise me for being antisocial. Sometimes we’d let the kids go up there by themselves. There’d always be the next morning, anyway.

Except now, there isn’t. I took our youngest son to the bus stop for the last time this week. It wasn’t dramatic; “Cat's in the Cradle” didn’t play on a loop in my head. In fact, my son got out of the house late so I didn’t even walk up the hill with him because he had to haul ass just to get to the top of the hill. And then, just like that, he was gone. Three months from now, he’ll go to middle school and make that trek up to the bus stop alone. He won’t need me anymore. He’s ready to not need me. This is the natural progression of things. This is your children learning to live without you, as they must. 

But all of it starts at the bus stop. I see that bus pull away and, just for a moment, wonder what’s going to happen next for them. They have lives inside that bus, and inside school, that I’ll never REALLY know anything about. What I hear at the dinner table is one percent of their day, if that. It’s supposed to be that way, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious. I imagine them meeting new kids, raising their hand in class, being bored, playing at recess, and getting in trouble. I live vicariously through them, and not in a Texas football dad kind of way. I think about their days at grade school, and then I think about my own. I’m able to relive my own childhood through my kids, and that’s more a gift than an affliction. 

My daughter is 17 now. When my wife and I told her how much she loved buses as a kid, she laughed. Like every other high schooler, she’d way rather drive to school than trudge to the fucking bus stop at the crack of ass. She has so much of her own life now that it’s not uncommon for me to see her for a grand total of 30 minutes on any given day. And when there’s no car to drive but she wants to go out for the night, you know what she gets on?

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