Dale left this morning to go back to Phoenix. It was almost like not having him here for the holidays; he was with his friends most of the time. Mainly, I would see him passing on his way to somewhere.

Probably the longest conversations we had were over the counter in the kitchen. Food had a tendency to slow him down long enough to see the features of his face and confirm that it was really Dale that had been here.Sometimes when I would be working late in the studio I would come upstairs to find that he had come home from somewhere with his friends and would be curled up in a blanket in the family room watching David Letterman.

His mechanical prowess did come in handy while he was here. One day he tore apart the microwave to see if he could fix the time. When I came in he had the thing hanging over the stove by its multicolored wire guts and with a big grin on his face.

My shaver had been on the fritz, going very slow, like a Volga boatman lugging a barge of coal uphill. I told him I'd give him $10 if he could get it working better. He took it apart, oiled it and cleaned it - it did improve somewhat. Since I didn't have a ten, I gave him a twenty. I figured he could use some extra gas money. Veloy, who was standing there (by the kitchen counter) said, "The other ten's for trying to fix the microwave."

Sally (also home for the holidays) said, "I can try to fix something, too."

One day Dale took the door off his little blue Volkswagen. The bottom hinge was broken. He lugged it down through the snow to the lower studio and welded it. Another day he came in with the end of a tailpipe and asked me if I wanted to add it to my junk collection.

But, like I say, for the most part he was off with his friends, Tyson and Roger.

This morning I'm in my studio working and he comes down to say goodbye. He was teary-eyed. We hugged, a long hug. I put my hand in the long hair on the back of his head, realizing that too soon the week and a half of Christmas visit had gone and that we had never really spent any time together.

So this was the little boy who in the basement of the old house in Alpine used to stand over the furnace vent and rub his pajamaed bottom against the wall on cold mornings. Suddenly the image of that little boy was there again, juxtaposed in my mind against this huge hulk of a man heading out for who knows how long before I'll see him again, making pizzas and fixing video games at Show Biz Pizza a thousand miles away.

He is so tall my chin rests on his shoulder. There is the cool feel of a moist tear against my ear. He must love me. He must miss home when he's gone. He must feel bad about going away.

I want to tell him to stay, that I'll take care of everything and that he doesn't need to go. But he does need to. He's not my little boy anymore, and I know that what he is experiencing away is good for him. It is good to be away, to be carving out his own world despite the awkwardness, the mistakes, the dangers, the weaknesses, the trial and error of being on your own.

I want to protect him, but he is too big for it.

Veloy and I go out to the driveway to see him off. The old blue VW struggles into life - barely. Sounds like it's only running on two cylinders. I want to run over and hand him another $50 through the window and tell him to get a valve job, but he knows more about what it needs than I do - and if the car quits he'll have to deal with it. My personal tow service can only go so far. He's got skis on his ski rack. He'll have to learn his own priorities. It's out of my hands.

Yet my whole heart is aching. He looks so fragile - but that's because I am seeing the little boy. It's the lonely, homesick look on his face and the red eyes that throw me off. He waves as he goes up the drive. I feel so bad I didn't do more. What could I do without imposing, or hurting. I don't know.

It's a 12-hour drive from here to Phoenix. I picture him alone somewhere on the other side of Bryce Canyon on a lonely highway. His heater doesn't work too well. I hope he doesn't get cold. Sometimes the world seems so big. It swallows little children and never spits them back again.