The father of the graduate tells all

As I write this, my daughter has yet to formally graduate from high school. But as you read this, she will have done so, and I will likely be resting comfortably in a room at Dominican hospital being treated for dehydration and salt depletion.

Sentimentality is one of my most unmanageable vices but, unless I stumble upon a Ken Burns documentary or that Springsteen song about a wreck on the highway, I can function day to day pretty well.

But, people, what am I supposed to do with this? I don’t have to tell anyone who’s experienced it that parental pride is the bucking bronco of emotions, wild and unpredictable, yet strong and true and beautiful. I prefer my emotions more tame and on a leash, frankly.

They say children grow up so fast, but that’s not exactly true. That’s just the sentimentality talking. When colic keeps her awake in her crib most of the night, when he’s 13 and slamming doors and listening to repugnant music way too loud, when she’s out at her first formal dance, when he’s driving away in your car under your insurance two months after getting his license – these are times when parenthood feels like an interminable slog.

Being a parent, in fact, is to be witness to a miracle in slow motion. That chubby baby I once held in my arms, that 4-year-old covered in finger-paints crying in the kitchen, that fifth-grader showing off her moves in the pool – all those children are as gone to me now as if they were the old appliances that we’d thrown out and replaced with new ones years ago, as if in fact they were each different people. What stands before me now is a young woman, in some ways a finished human being, legally and politically speaking, my equal.

What accounts for the difference between my hair-trigger emotionalism at this occasion and her rather blasé attitude is the fact that I’m quietly mourning the disappearance of all those children she used to be. And, she’s not. All she wants from her parents is for us to take her as she is now, not as she once was. And we owe it to her to do that. That’s the struggle.

I can’t count the times over the years when I would chat with other parents whose children were older than mine at the time. Whether they said the words or not, the message was clear: enjoy this period with your kids, because it will go the way of all things soon enough.

And now as I inhabit that role of the pathetic dad of the graduate, all a-puddle in my sport coat, clutching my program, I want to believe that I did enjoy those periods to their fullest – the face-painting and Halloween costumes, the backyard tea parties featuring the household pets and several imaginary guests, the battles over food and cleaning up, the swing sets and storybooks. But mostly I remember my all-engulfing relief during those moments when I could be alone again, or with other adults, before the whole circus started again the next day. So, I say to anyone with a 7-year-old in the house: Savor all those difficult and taxing kids things because what you know in your mind now – that these are fleeting moments never to return – you’ll only feel in your heart later on.

The young people now graduating are, of course, subject to sentimentality too. But it’s much more directed at their peers, to whom they feel a band-of-brothers [and sisters] solidarity of shared experience, and the painful realization that their relationships with each other are about to change radically. The parents aren’t part of that picture. It’s just common decency as a parent not to shoehorn yourself into that picture. Ours is a role of standing back.

Yet, on another level, I’m just not going to write off these waves of emotion as mere sentimentality. Graduations, weddings, funerals, many of the rituals of change we humans have concocted to mark our lives illustrate a deep spiritual paradox – maybe the deepest spiritual paradox about life as we live it.

At graduation, your child is one of dozens – sometimes hundreds, and on a global scale, millions – dressed exactly alike, having the exact same experience. That’s a reminder that she’s not unique, or even particularly special. But having seen her develop, having known intimately the warp and woof of her young life, you also know that she is unique in the world. The contradiction of those two truths – that life is cheap and plentiful, and at the same time unique and precious – is the source of all awe and wonder.

Banal platitudes? Yeah, sure. But what are graduation ceremonies all about but surrendering to the inescapable truth of banal platitudes? Has there been a commencement speech ever uttered that didn’t arrive at the same place somehow?

So I offer up my deepest congratulations to my daughter and all those donning the cap and gown this month. You’ll find soon enough that maddening paradox will follow you the rest of your days, as you make your way in this indifferent world – you are both unique in the all world, and also merely one of six billion souls struggling to live to your full potential.

And that goes for me too. I’d like to think that my turbulent emotional state when it comes to my own child is unique. But I know that the parent in the next folding chair is going through the same thing, and the one behind him, and the one beside her, and the one next to him …

Man, I hope the hospital is prepared for the rush.

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