Yesterday I sat in the stands at my son’s graduation, smack at what would be the face-off line of the covered ice hockey rink, counting the rows of chairs on the floor below and trying to work out which mortarboard was his in a royal blue sea of 440 graduates. All of us parents standing shoulder-to-shoulder were doing the same thing, of course: Each of us seeking out our own kid, each of our hearts swollen within our chests to the point of bursting. (We parents are impossibly foolish, aren’t we? It’s easy to mock this brand of sappy sentimentality -– I want to mock myself right now –- but still you are powerless to resist the thing that makes you so happy, so joyful, so full of love that you are full to the brim, and overflowing, and all your bones are loose and floating in the syrupy liquid somewhere, bobbing on the surface.)
The Chinese family with the camcorder in front of me put a good face on it. But I knew that, like me, they were boneless, too, even if it’s not immediately apparent when you looked at them or at any other family in the stands. What you see instead is all of us passively bearing witness to the usual stuff: the amazingly brilliant class valedictorian turns to face the class of 2010 and the whole place roars at once for him; the principal says a few words; someone sings a big number with meaningful lyrics to befit a momentous occasion like this one. Like most of the canned stuff, this girl sings well enough, but the whole thing still comes off a little lame and overdone. One of the students lets fly an inflated beach ball that his classmates keep randomly alight.
Then before you know it, they’re lining up, and someone starts to call the names, and you watch as they cross the stage, one by one. And finally, my boy is the one crossing a stage, accepting a diploma in his left hand, and with his right shaking hands with his high school principal. He looks the guy directly in the eye and smiles, which momentarily strikes me as odd, because just last week he was a toddler and way too small to stand eye-to-eye with an adult. Or so it seems.
I’ve been dreading this day, in a way. Probably because this is one of those big moments – like the first day of kindergarten, which again was only a day or two ago — that signals a shift into a different point in time. It sounds dramatic to say that a high school graduation bookends a childhood, but I can’t help but feel that a little bit of that is true, and with it a part of me has been bunged, too. For parents, it seems there’s a subtle shift from player to onlooker, participant to armchair fan. Literally we were already there, of course, installed as spectators behind the arena hockey boards.
Then again, parents are good at watching, aren’t we? And in fact, our first responsibility is to watch. Newly pregnant Moms watch what we eat and how much we do. And later, after the birth, we watch for everything so as not to miss anything: the first smile, the first tooth, first steps. And we watch them sleep. Hours and hours of rocking and willing them to sleep and then more hours, too: If you could collect and mash together all those minutes spent hovering and covering and making sure they are still breathing.
They grow a little, and still we watch: for things that could harm -– kitchen chairs they could topple from, the things they can choke on: the impossibly stupid stones or grapes or nickels or anything they might swallow in a flash, before we can stop it. And later, we watch them jump into the deep end, and we catch the first glimpse of the kindergarten bus rolling toward your stop. And school plays and what’s-your-homework and a one more birthday candle on the cake, year after year.
We watch their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, the site of them running across a field or dancing across a stage or whatever it is that they love to do. We watch where they put their stuff so we know where to tell them to find it later. We watch the back of their heads when they leave and they don’t turn around — which makes you wonder, for a minute, When did they stop looking back to you?
And maybe –- if one or both of you are lucky –- we get to observe their own pride in something they did or created or achieved, and maybe some recognition from some institution or individual that matters to them. Or we watch things that I can right now only imagine in some unfocused way, the way you try to imagine life on another planet, maybe: Their own transition into watching over some little being of their own.
I thought of this yesterday, as I watched him walk across the stage, and it occurred to me then: Has anything really changed? Isn’t this how it always is? In a way, aren’t we -– as parents — always waiting, already watching, always on the side of the field? From the moment of conception, aren’t we always sidelined?
Does that sound glum? Morose? I don’t mean it that way. Because yesterday, I actually took some comfort in the sudden perspective that being sidelined has always been a fundamental part of the job. It’s less about being marginalized or nonessential or other words that you might use to describe anything that’s a little off-center. Rather, it’s more the idea that, from birth, they have their own path to follow, which sometimes has surprisingly little to do with us.
But anyway, watching is a great thing to do, whether you are in an armchair or in the bleachers. Maybe you’re there to see a sports meet, or a dance recital, or a Tai Kwon Do exhibition, or — one amazing day — the walk across the graduation dais. Or, most thrilling of all, maybe one day you see what really counts: The glimpse of the broad smile that lights up his face as he strikes the bottom stair, and continues down the aisle, right past where you’re seated.