Auf wiedersehen, my Germany-bound son

His hand shook slightly as I handed him his suitcase for his early morning flight last week. I think it finally hit him — he was going to be in another country for almost an entire year.
Esten Andres Cooke, our first-born, now 17-year-old, embarked on a trip to Germany as part of the Rotary International Student Exchange Program. His parents are excited for him, terrified and a little wispy at having our first baby bird leaving the nest.
Esten will be in Fehmarn, Germany, a small island off the northeastern coast. It is closer to Denmark than most of Germany, but his host families will likely take him around the country to see other cities. 
He has always loved art and design, so Germany will be a treat for his senses — a land filled with architectural treasures, iconic music (thank you, Mr. Beethoven) and a share of classic artists. I told him German newspapers are some of the most well-designed, too. There is a particular design aesthetic — clean and functional — that he will appreciate. 
Rotary International has sponsored these trips for decades and the students serve as ambassadors for their town, their state and their country. It gives them the opportunity to immerse themselves in another culture, learn another language and spread their wings far beyond their comfortable confines of home. His mother and I are grateful for all the assistance from our officers in the Fredericksburg Rotary Club and District 5840, as well as our compatriots in Germany.
It’s just going to be weird without him around the house. He loves to go on walks to think about things and process information. We’ll miss hearing him teaching himself guitar and singing along and we’ll lack his mature (for a teen) conversation at the dinner table. Heck, we’ll even miss his shutting our kitchen cabinet doors a little too loudly (right next to our bedroom).  
I remember the anxiety I felt leaving home, and I only went to Odessa, a seven-hour drive from my hometown. Esten is halfway across the world. A former exchange student, Katherine Tanner, who spent time in Austria, told him to stick with it. “You’ll be frustrated because you know you’re an intelligent person, but you can only communicate with a kindergartener’s vocabulary,” she told him.
Sprechen sie Deutsch has not come easy for my son (nor his parents). He had three years of Spanish in high school and my wife’s family speaks that Latin tongue. But he befriended a German exchange student this year, Miss Jana Brockmann, and she convinced him to go for the exchange opportunity. That meant starting from square one with the language. 
But, the kid has always been determined and independent. I have no doubt he’ll do well once he gets settled in and is able to communicate.
Esten was a good big brother to Will, barring the first introduction. We laid the newborn Will down on the bed and got Esten up to greet him. He gave his new brother a knock to his nose with his forehead. He had figured out he was no longer the sole little prince. After he realized he had a pliable play partner, we’d find him dragging his brother around by his leg so they could play before Will could walk, then assigning him roles to whatever imaginary superhero game they conjured up.
He is a curious child and never likes to be mentally bored. We read hundreds of books from the time we still rocked him to sleep, we listened to clever They Might Be Giants songs that taught science and math, visited museums to see dinosaur bones, watched about every animated children’s movie that was released between 2000 and 2013, participated in Cub Scouts and Webelos. 
We moved here in 2012, and got him through the awkward junior high years, his first love in high school and his first heartbreak. He channeled that energy into teaching himself guitar. Last year was a good growth year for him in every way. Every parent knows it’s amazing to watch your children make strides and accomplish things.
So, we bid him auf wiedersehen and watch him disappear into the airport security line. We miss him already, but we’re proud of him for taking this step. We can’t wait to see his growth and progress after this year.
Wir lieben dich, mein Sohn.
 

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