My son went off to college yesterday. I left him at the airport feeling proud but lonely and oddly bereft. Obsolete; but as my Mother often points out, that should be any parent's ultimate goal. It made me think of something I wrote on the day he graduated from high school, which is worth posting here for the record:
My son Nick graduated from high school today, and I was stunned by the ambush of emotion. For years it seems I’ve known every possible sentiment ahead of time, shrugging as they trundled towards me: this is going to make me angry, that will be fun; whatever. But this came at me from too many directions at once. It was strange and troubling to have a feeling I couldn’t identify.
I grasped just bits and pieces of it at first. I felt a tug of genuine suspense when Nick was crossing the stage to pick up his diploma … as if something might happen to screw it up, as if the diploma itself might be blank. I know other people felt the same way: I made the joke with a few of the parents I knew, and saw the nervous smile of recognition on their faces. Then came the relief. It was over, we did it, he made it.
I called my ex-wife and we talked for a while. Later, I said to my Mom, “No one else knows what this feels like.” And she said, “What about me? I’ve been through it, too.” We hugged and I found that I was crying. She said: “For twenty years you’ve been putting yourself last; now you can finally put yourself first. You can finally do what you want. But what is that?” And I really had no idea. But I feel like some huge changes could begin now; as if I had graduated, not Nick.
But even that isn’t all. Nick’s graduation unplugs me from a whole community that I didn’t even know I cared about. I wasn’t really part of it, in any big way: I didn’t volunteer, or chaperone or substitute teach. But I knew these kids, and through them their parents and through those families the real life of the island I lived on and the town that had somehow, almost against my will, become my home. Now that living connection is gone, too. The next bunch of kids will be strangers to me; the next crazy teacher won’t be my problem. So this rite of passage isolates me. It makes me feel my age. I finished my fiftieth year, my first real novel and my children’s high school careers all in the same week. That’s a lot of endings.
At the senior ball a few days ago I looked around at the kids dancing and felt so much like one of them. My own delirious prom – on a different continent, almost a third of the way back into an earlier century, in a long-extinct world of bell-bottoms and LBJ - was so close it seemed like it was still happening. Then I looked around at the baggy, graying adults jostled by the vivid pulsing life around them, shaking their heads and taking pictures … and I realized with a thud, it was actually as if I had dropped something, that I was one of them: I was just another beloved but marginal Dad, too old to matter at that moment, on my way out, letting them have the night to themselves.
It had happened at last: they were all grown up.
It was disorienting: something huge and minutely detailed, a whole world, really, had disappeared in an instant. The secret core of my identity had become a technicality. Of course I’m still a parent and always will be. But my job is complete. This is the moment we were striving for. And I’m happy about it, just like I’m supposed to be. Still, the sadness under that triumph is all around me, pervasive as the weather. This moment feels like a picnic in the rain, and it’s raining hard on Nantucket today, in the middle of the wettest late spring on record. Despite the joy, I feel displaced, like an executive forced into early retirement, but given a seat on the Board. My status may be the same, but my daily life will be permanently diminished.
My brother Peter came to Nantucket for the graduation, and he walked into the house with a bag of groceries a few minutes ago. Mom stood up as he came in – cutting me off in the middle of a sentence. I asked her, “Why did you get up?” She said, “I thought Peter needed help.” He just looked at her with a patient baffled smile (he has no children). He said, “I’m fine Mom,” and started unpacking the food. She sat down again, and I said, “I guess that’s a look I’m going to have to start getting used to.”
She nodded a little sadly. “Yes,” she said. “But you never will.”