This past Sunday was my baby girl’s high school graduation. Chaos reigned last week as we worked on tidying up the house (calling the HazMat team, alerting the neighborhood to ignore tumbleweed size chunks of animal fur rolling past), preparing meals and shopping last minute (is there any other kind of shopping?).
With much anticipation and excitement we awaited the arrival of OK and The Boy Friday evening. Because of the timing of baccalaureate we weren’t home when they were due to arrive. We did, however, provide them with a car parked at the bus station to travel by – along with directions. Hey, it had been a while and I didn’t want them jumping on the highway the wrong way and winding up in North Wingpit.
While I admit it would have been fun to greet them with a big “Welcome back” sign at the bus station, it was especially sweet to arrive home and find them here for the first time in a year and a half, when OK had hopped on a Philly-bound bus to be with her true love. The weekend’s conversation swirled with familiar laughter as we relished just being together again.
Of course, before that OK had to send me into mild hysteria at the beginning of their trip last Friday. Feigning illness and a late start to the bus stop via text (I understand this was at The Boy’s suggestion – he has much to learn), at 10:07 a.m. she alerted me that they were “almost at the bus station.” The bus was scheduled to leave at 10:15. Not a good sign. A few minutes later her text announced, “Ummm… I think we just missed the bus.”
I’m not sure what part of her thought I would laugh heartily at this prank when I found out that they were really on the bus and had been at the station for close to an hour ahead of departure. Apparently her father’s warped sense of humor reigned at the time – before she found out that I was sitting at my desk in tears, my computer screen immediately filled with information on bus, train and flight schedules (yes, flight.... S was only slightly amused by that part) to get them here by Friday evening. Note to children in general: Do not… hold on - not enough emphasis.
DO NOT EVER attempt to joke about missing an important event with a mother who:
#1 has not been able to watch any commercials displaying the slightest parent/child sentiment without melting into tears for the last three months;
#2 has been pouring over baby pictures since September to capture just the right one for A) the yearbook, B) the senior photo slide show, C) social media to use on “The Day.”
#3 has not been able to have a conversation with any other mom of a graduating senior without seemingly gasping for air in order to not bust out in tears.
More than just Mommy being Mommy
I’m going to slip back in time a bit here to get the full effect of what this whole weekend meant to me personally. Five years ago I had just gone into remission after a battle with Leukemia (AML - the "best" - i.e., most curable - kind of Leukemia to have, we were told in the beginning). The diagnosis threw all of us into a complete tailspin, but the fight itself to recovery was shockingly arduous and terrifying, even more so for my family than me, since I was not conscious or particularly alert through a chunk of the time I was receiving treatment. It is obvious that I am far from the only parent with real fears, especially based on this type of health scare, of not being there for her children on their most important days. It is what every parent fears no matter what that child’s age. What I did find as time went by is that a bond has since formed through just a look, a nod, a hug, when I come across others who have faced similar situations. We crammed into shiny bleachers with other parents who had similar experiences and were now squirming in close to 90 degree weather (with a touch of cyclone thrown in, deceptively convincing some students and attendees there was no need for sunblock), searching across a newly turfed football field hoping to distinguish their child from the other maroon and gold caps and gowns. Thankful to be here for this day? That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the emotion cascading through me.
In a New York Minute – no matter where you live
On Sunday we slathered ourselves with SPF-50, listened to speeches (ranging from meaningful to… not so much), discovered who received scholarships (including YK – yay!), and generally tried not to kick the person sitting on the bleachers in front of us. Then my baby walked across the new turf of the football field along with 366 of her classmates and received her high school diploma, graduating magna cum laude. To say it was an emotional moment sounds so cliché. The whole week had been one of blurred vision (especially through the senior song, which I heard at no less than five events, and teared up every time), nearly tangible excitement for “The Day,” and a small sense of dread because I know the next step is dropping her off at a college eight hours away in August.
Commencement is followed by a tradition at this high school – the hug line. In the shape of what looks like a giant centipede, maroon and gold caps and gowns hug for what will be the last time (and actually, in most cases, first) in a final congratulations to each other. It is fun to watch and of course it got to me, but it was also a bit comical witnessing how YK had different versions of ‘hug.' There was the full on hug, reserved for good friends and even the kids she didn’t hang out with but knew to be likeable. Then there was the touch on both shoulders in a sort of “how’re ya doin’” motion for the ones she knew of and may have shared a class with. Finally, there was the single arm hug that she swiftly slung over and removed in one quick motion, not so much in disdain as “Oh yeah, you are so off my Facebook by tomorrow.” She had all the bases covered.
Funny how in one minute everything changed.
About a half hour after ceremonies ended I was driving by the now deserted high school to the store to pick up a cake I had ordered. Passing the front entrance, I felt an odd emptiness, and something that felt a bit like panic. YK would no longer have any reason to enter these gates, to walk through the halls or step into a classroom. This was no longer her world, and I suddenly realized it was no longer mine either. Yes, we might go back during concerts and plays, but it will never be quite the same again. This was a strange rush of melancholy I was unprepared for.
There has been more going on than just a graduation here this past week. OK and The Boy chose to incorporate a few visits to wedding venues into their trip. This was a first for them – and for me. Not that I went with them. That would be obnoxious and unnecessary. And they didn’t ask me (very smart). Still, the idea that someone was talking to them about a ceremony and a guest list and all those “firsts” definitely triggered some butterflies even for me. A couple of times I did offer (hopefully in a non-mother-in-law-to-be way) suggestions about how they might want to go about their search, and S and I let them know we want to help them as much as possible once they establish what they want. And where they want to have it. And when.
Now I get it
When I was just two weeks away from my own wedding (lo, those many years ago), my mom went to a hairdresser to have her hair cut and colored. In my mind to this day is a strong picture of my mother standing in front of her mirror at home afterward with tears streaming down her face because she hated the cut and the color was darker than she had wanted. Funny, I remember thinking how she looked so glamorous on my wedding day.. but at that moment she was inconsolable. It was all wrong.
The morning of YK’s graduation, OK and I ran to the dollar store (where all wise parents shop for celebrations) to get the balloons I had pre-ordered (fine - the day before - but at least I did it) so we could get home and tie them to the mailbox while YK was in one of her marathon showers. The minute the clerk handed them to me I realized the colors I had chosen were haphazard at best, a weird mixture of orange Mylar with "Congratulations Grad" (it is one of her new school colors), yellow, white, blue and red, I believe. I don’t know what I was thinking when I ordered them, but as we shoved them into the car I was thinking, “What was I thinking???” I knew OK wouldn’t say a negative word about them (even though I was sure she was very curious about my choices) and that YK would be just plain happy to see congratulatory balloons in front of her house. But I knew it was all wrong. There was additional irony in the fact that the Mylar balloon with “Congratulations Grad” – in the only color that made sense - was literally ripped off by the wind while we were at the ceremony.
Between graduation and dinner I ran to pick up the cake I had ordered. At least this couldn’t go wrong, I thought. The colors were to be maroon, gold and orange for trimming – a combination of maroon and gold for her high school, and maroon and orange for the college she will be attending. I had it covered! When the bakery clerk brought over the cake I was sure my face dropped. The message had been written in yellow (it had looked much closer to gold on the other cakes I had seen). Yellow? Really? They didn’t ask me what color I wanted the writing in? They couldn’t have figured that the orange or maroon would have shown up better? Just so wrong.
I'll bet you're catching on about now, and so am I. It wasn’t about the color or cut of my mom’s hair. It had little to do with my choice of balloons or the writing on the cake. It was – and is - about knowing change is inevitable, ready or not.
Play it Again, Mom
I can easily replay in my head the dozens of times their dad and I held our children’s hands and ‘flew’ them over a puddle. Colorful scenes of kite flying on the beach, searching for falling stars at night in the backyard, our crazy after-Christmas gingerbread houses, even the alphabet game on road trips (which we still do, but I know in my heart, that is about to end… probably on our way to PA in August) compose a revolving panorama through my mind these days. There is a genuine heaviness in keeping from tearing up on days when I’m driving down the road thinking of nothing, and find myself unexpectedly reliving a day in the life of parenthood.
Change is exciting. S and I are going on a date Friday night. He made plans for us that will be a surprise to me. The fact that he made plans is enough of a surprise, but as long as I know the dress code I’m game for whatever he’s got rolled up his sleeve. There has been no reason for us not to go on dates more often. YK is 18, and has been striking a chord toward independence since birth, so she cheers us on when we have ‘couples’ plans, happy to have control of the TV remote. I just have not been very interested in being gone for any length of time whenever one of my kids has been here, though I wouldn't say we've been hermits either. But knowing very soon it will be “just us” I can honestly say I am ready to ‘go out’ – with my husband.
Change is unnerving. By summer’s end my children will be a minimum of seven hours away from me. Philadelphia is not the world’s safest city, though OK is in a pretty decent area. YK’s college is an hour from the Harrisburg bus station - which I have been warned isn’t the greatest area – and at that point she will still have a haul to see her sister. We will have to celebrate YK’s birthday a week late when we go to Family Weekend. I don’t even know what’s going to happen with Thanksgiving (other than that I will not be fit to live with if I’m not with at least one kid). I’m scared, plain and simple, to be that far from both of my girls. But they are both so happy with their choices that I know in my heart we will figure it out, and it will be all right.
Change is inevitable. The beauty of that is in choosing to be truly grateful that we’re along for the ride. At 50-don’t-ask years old I know I am still changing, evolving, recreating who I am and where I’m going. Life is all about facing - or fighting - change. We are each trying to defy gravity in our own way. So as inevitable and sometimes heartbreaking as change is, the supressed rebel in me is does enjoy seeing the adventuresome (and somewhat impulsive) side of my offspring being unleashed. Don’t be fooled, though, by these declarations. It was still bittersweet to hear about OK's conversation with a co-worker about coming to Maine where she referred to this as “my parents’ home” instead of just “home.”
I don’t try to picture OK in her wedding dress - partially because my spaghetti brain goes from wedding dress to location to family visiting to people walking into my house to We Have to Get New Kitchen Cabinets Before The Wedding (yes, that is the typical road my mind travels). My mind won’t wander (yet) to the day we drop YK off on her home away from home for the next four years. This is partially self-preservation, knowing if I focus on that day too soon it will be a very difficult two and a half months. I also believe YK is over the top excited but also a tad nervous about being so far from home. This is the kid that zeroed in on finding her family after the graduation hug line, leading to a small admonishment from classmates who had tried to find her for photo ops. It’s some comfort to know she’s not packing just yet and that every time she says (with a touch of sauciness), “You’ll miss me” she is also saying “I’ll miss you, too” in a healthy, completely secure way.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s hard to know how to end a blog about a story that’s just beginning. So I will end it with two pictures, one for an ending of sorts, one for a beginning.
The night before OK and The Boy boarded the bus back home we came together for a bonfire in our beautiful backyard fire pit (constructed with great care by S). I won’t say this is the last time we will sit together and admire the dancing flames (and try to keep our almost blind dog’s tail out of them) as a family, but it is very likely the last one we will have as this family in this way.
Orange is one of the school colors of YK’s college. You don’t often see it in a rose, so naturally we had to have it for her at graduation (thank you, vendor under the bleachers). Whether the significance struck her the same way is still up for debate, but I can tell you the weight of its meaning went straight to my heart.