This essay originally appeared in Palo Alto Patch. I am reposting it in honor of all of the parents who are sending their beloveds off to college this month. Yes, one year later, and it is easier, much easier, but still bittersweet.
It’s graduation week around town. We’re hearing lots of speeches about new beginnings, following your dreams, and choosing roads less traveled. Students are told repeatedly “it’s all ahead of you.” But for those of us with children in cap and gown, it’s not all about the future. For us, it’s also about the past.
We have watched as our sons and daughters marked their many firsts. First step, first word, first friend, first grade, first kiss, first car. The list goes on. But each first is bounded by a last. The last time he had a bottle. The last time she needed training wheels. The last time I walked him to school. The last time she asked for a ride.
We honor our children’s first with such enthusiasm and excitement. But, these days, I find myself also doing my best to honor the past. With a son who has just spent his last day in high school and will be soon heading off to college, there is much to honor.
Which explains why in my house, the latest family game has been, “how fast can we make mom cry.”
We sit around the dinner table and my thirteen-year-old, who is busy milking his role as the youngest, happily launches into one oh-so-helpful observation after another.
“Hey Mom, what are you going to do when William is not here to watch Glee with you?”
“Hey Mom, do you realize that was the last Halloween William will be here to hand out candy with you?’
“Hey Mom, isn’t sad that you and William won’t be together on his birthday next year. He won’t even be here for Mother’s Day either. I bet you’ll miss him.”
Cue the tears.
And to rub salt into the wounds, for a good time the kids have been making me watch commencement speeches. Everyone cries when Steve Job’s reminds us no one wants to die, and it is hard not to shed a tear or two when J.K Rowling tells Harvard grads to embrace failure and live authentically,but when I started sobbing at Ellen DeGeneres’s hilarious 2009 Tulane “common-cement” speech, I knew I was in trouble.
How would I possibly get through my own son’s graduation without making a fool of myself? Or, worse still, mortifying him? I tried to tell myself, “this is the way of things” or “be proud, you’ve successfully launched your son” or “at least he’s not gone yet.” It didn’t work. All the bromides just ended up making me cry all over again.
It is true, this is the way of things. We have children so they can grow into adults and carry on humanity. At best, we hope they are good people who do good things for themselves and others. At least, we want them, like newborn foals, to be able to stand on their own.
And while I would like to take credit for “successfully launching” my son, the truth is he pretty much did it himself. He knew what he wanted from an early age. He set about to achieve his goals and was willing to work hard to do so. That he was able to be flexible and adaptable along the way, speaks volumes about his character and fortitude.
Yep, crying again. You see, I know how different how our home will be when he is no longer here. I’ve gone through it before.
During his junior year, my son spent a semester at a boarding school focusing on his passion for art and design. At the time, I knew he would only be away for four months. I was sure it would breeze by. But something was off in the house. The house was much quieter without his music blaring down the hallway. His younger sister and brother didn’t seem to laugh as much. Even the dog didn’t get walked as often.
One night when I couldn’t sleep and was wandering the hallway, trying to ignore my insomnia by admiring the shadows from the full moon, I walked into his room and lay on his empty bed. There on his pillow was the lightest of scents lingering from his last visit home. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I burst into tears.
I missed my son. I missed his laughter. I missed the delight he took in annoying his little brother. I missed the fun he had sharing playlists with his sister. I missed the stories of the exploits of his friends he made me promise to never tell.
But it was more than that. I realized then he has made me a better person and for that I am deeply grateful.
So here I am, two years later, preparing for the official last time he is with us each and every day. I am proud to say I made it through his graduation with just a tissue or two. I clapped. I cheered. I hugged. We took photos. And through it all, I kept my tears at bay.
Until, I was driving home from the last celebratory event.
The radio was on, the moon was low and full, and Stevie Nicks started singing one my old favorites, Landslide. You try to not cry at that one.
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I built my life around you.
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
And I’m getting older too.
I know it won’t be the last time I will be forced to pull over because the tears are too thick and it certainly will not be the last time I allow myself the luxury of mourning what was. But, as I dried my eyes, I tried to remind myself the end of my son’s high school years heralds a new beginning for his mother. For all of the moaning and groaning, good things are ahead. At least that is what my son tells me. It’s good to know he has inherited something from me; we are both optimists at heart.