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A (Sort of) Sentimental Post That I Tried to Make Less So

DSC_2653Yesterday 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.

Total Annarchy

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40 Responses to A (Sort of) Sentimental Post That I Tried to Make Less So

  1. Lori Magno says:

    I wish there were better words than 'you must be very proud' – but that's all I have after you made me weepy!

  2. JamieLee says:

    Ann – I feel like I've been stalking you today, but our twitter timing must just be in sync or something.
    Loved this piece. You made me sniffle a little.
    My daughter is six and her last day of Kindergarten is next Friday. I can hardly believe it. Kindergarten seemed like SUCH a big step, and yet I know that in only a few heartbeats I'll turn around and be sitting just where you were yesterday – watching all those years zip by in fast forward – watching my no-longer-little girl step up and into the next stage of her life.
    I dread that day, and look forward to it at the same time. Parenting is such a dichotomy of feelings, it's a wonder we are able to stay stitched together at the seams – bursting as we are with love, fear, worry, joy, pride and wonder.
    Thanks for sharing the softer side of Ann. ;)

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  4. Thanks for making me bawl, Ann. I really didn't have anything else to do today.

  5. BHK says:

    My son is only 7 and I'm dreading the kind of day you describe. It seems impossible, but I know that it will happen all too soon. But thanks for sharing. It was very sweet.

  6. Paul Chaney says:

    Watching…I'd never thought of it that way. But, you're right, we do. Until they grow up and are gone. Then, we spend our lives remembering all those events like the ones you named.

    I hate it for divorced parents, most often the dads, who are absent from their children most of the time. They don't get the pleasure of watching. Hence, they don't get the the joy and privilege of remembering either. They can't be sidelined, because they're not even at the game.

  7. annhandley says:

    Paul: #lumpinthroat

  8. What a great post, Ann. I found you on Twitter through @Ed and you described my sentiments exactly.

    My son [oldest] also graduated this year and I was caught off guard with how emotionally “unstable” I've been about all of this. [On his last official day of school I happened to see a picture of his very first day starting kindergarten and just about lost it.]

    They have all the “What to Expect” books when they're little but not much for this chapter of their lives, right?

    It really does fly by in a heartbeat.

  9. annhandley says:

    You're quite right.. there are no books for this chapter, I guess because mileage varies so widely. Or maybe because things get exponentially more complex… I wish could follow some script on how to do things “right,” in the spirit of the “What to Expect” books I, too, poured over.

    Actually, never mind. A script would suck. What's awesome about these chapters is that it's so entirely unscripted, and far more surprising than I might have imagined.

  10. Mindy says:

    This has such a familiar ring to it! Having just watched my daughter graduate from high school last year, I can say that the process of watching in wonder continues, as they move on to the next chapter(s)! Great photo of him, BTW!

  11. Lee Odden says:

    Wonderful post Ann :) An experience I can relate to (so far) and a glimpse at what is to come. I could never have anticipated the rollercoaster satisfaction of being a proud parent. Thank you for sharing this :)

  12. Lee Odden says:

    Wonderful post Ann :) An experience I can relate to (so far) and a glimpse at what is to come. I could never have anticipated the rollercoaster satisfaction of being a proud parent. Thank you for sharing this :)

  13. DJ Waldow says:

    Ann –

    What I love about your writing style is you are able to make me laugh and cry all in the same post. Crazy skills. Your timing is great too. As you know, Little Miss @babywaldow Eva Claire is in week 2 of daycare. I still stare at her sleeping all the time. I kiss her every chance I get. I hold her all the time. I miss her when she's at daycare. I *watch*- Holy CRAP. I can't even imagine kindergarten or (gasp!) college!

    I've been thinking a ton about how my life has changed in the past few months because of that little girl. I started a new series today on my blog – Lessons from Eva: http://idek.net/1oVn (she's also starting to blog on http://evawaldow.com/).

    Enough about me (and Eva). You've given me a lot to think about with this post. Exciting, scary, fun, thrilling, blah blah times ahead.

    I'm happy for you and your family. They are lucky to have you as a mom.

    DJ Waldow
    @djwaldow

  14. Suzanne Vara says:

    Congrats to your son and even more so to you for being able to even write this piece. We watch from the sidelines and coach our children along the way and help mold them to become the best kid, adult, parent, etc. With each milestone that our children reach, it is exciting for them but hard on the parents.

    My son starts kindergarten in the fall and while he is counting the days, I am not so much.

  15. Beautiful post, Ann. Congratulations to your son on his graduation and congratulations to you as well for watching him through it all. Now that he has graduated from high school, does that mean you graduate from watching? I'm sure the next phase for both of you will be wonderful!

  16. BL says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post ann. i am always amazed that you make me laugh and cry in the space of about three minutes, which leaves me sitting in front of my computer feeling like a nut :>)

    Seriously, your writing is poetic. More, more!!!

  17. Elise Brunelle says:

    This isn't fair! Here I am, first thing in the morning at my desk at work, and my brother sends this blog through to me, and I read it. Now I”m crying. And I'm trying to avoid my staff until I can get my act together again. My kids is only 3 1/2 yrs old, and she definately still looks back at me when I leave. Don't tell me that changes! Fantastic post. Thanks for the tears this morning. Elise Brunelle (in South Africa)

  18. Yes, our job is to work for eighteen years just to let them go. Congratulations Mom!

  19. Eileen Powers says:

    What I have always loved about your writing is your ability to take a very personal experience and make it universal so all who read your stories feel like you are describing their own experiences. What a gift you have!

    As a mother who was in that exact venue with you (and whose beautiful daughter stands next to your amazing son in the above photo) I can not express the gratitude I have for this post. I feel so blessed that you have been such an important part of the lives of my children through the years as well as mine. – Eileen

  20. KarenSwim says:

    Ann, I have not idea what it feels like to be a parent yet somehow I do after reading your heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing the experience, and allowing me to feel for a moment the wonder and purity of a mother's love journey with her child. Congratulations to you and your son.

  21. I remember one day looking down at the sleeping baby in my arms–my first–then saying to her father, “I'm watching her sleep.”

    He said, “Yeah….?”

    I said, “I'm watching. Her. Sleep. I'm not reading a book, I'm not watching TV, I'm not typing with one hand while I hold her with the other, I'm not doing anything else. This is all I want to do.”

    She graduated from high school a year ago. Her younger sister graduates in two years. Our job as parents is to work ourselves out of a job, except that we're never done with that job of watching that you describe so beautifully.

    Thank you for making me cry. I was so excited to see a post from you in my Google Reader!

    –barb

  22. Dannacall says:

    Beautiful.

  23. annhandley says:

    Thanks, Karen. Means to the world to me.

  24. annhandley says:

    “Our job as parents is to work ourselves out of a job, except we're never done…”

    I think that's exactly right. (Which was a fairly recent revelation to me, believe it or not! At least, that “never done” part…)

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  33. steveolenski says:

    “When did they stop looking back to you?”

    It was 2004. My daughter, who is now 10 going on 21 was 5 years old. We were in our backyard playing on the swing set. We have one of those multi-functional swing sets that also includes a sliding board.

    It was a clear, crisp November Philly day… yes, I remember it as vividly as anyone can remember anything.

    My daughter ascended to the stop rung of the slide and I, the dutiful dad, was right behind her. She was a little afraid of climbing to the top of the slide by herself so I assured and reassured her…

    'It's ok… daddy's right here.'

    She turned, looked back at me and asked…

    “Will you always be there for me, daddy?”

    Even now as I am sharing this with you all these years later, I am brought to tears…

    I want my daughter AND my son to know they can always look back and that I will always be there for them.

    Thank you for sharing this story, Ann. If time really does fly when you're having fun then I must have be having the time of my life…

  34. FMJohnson says:

    I thought you might appreciate a couple of poems on the subject:

    First Lesson (Philip Booth)

    Lie back daughter, let your head

    be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

    Gently, and I will hold you. Spread

    your arms wide, lie out on the stream

    and look high at the gulls. A dead-

    man's float is face down. You will dive

    and swim soon enough where this tidewater

    ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe

    me, when you tire on the long thrash

    to your island, lie up, and survive.

    As you float now, where I held you

    and let go, remember when fear

    cramps your heart what I told you:

    lie gently and wide to the light-year

    stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

    And of course, the classic:

    On Children (Kahlil Gibran)

    http://www.katsandogz.com/onchildren.html

  35. FMJohnson says:

    I thought you might appreciate a couple of poems on the subject:

    First Lesson (Philip Booth)

    Lie back daughter, let your head

    be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

    Gently, and I will hold you. Spread

    your arms wide, lie out on the stream

    and look high at the gulls. A dead-

    man's float is face down. You will dive

    and swim soon enough where this tidewater

    ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe

    me, when you tire on the long thrash

    to your island, lie up, and survive.

    As you float now, where I held you

    and let go, remember when fear

    cramps your heart what I told you:

    lie gently and wide to the light-year

    stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

    And of course, the classic:

    On Children (Kahlil Gibran)

    http://www.katsandogz.com/onchildren.html

  36. Very nice post! I recall my daughter and youngest son’s HS graduation, my daughter’s graduation from 2 year college and with her BS in Foreign Affairs (in Seattle), and my middle son’s graduation from basic training in San Antonio. Each one of these events were very happy, mixed-emotion occurrences. So many of the feelings you described were present. Sometimes growing up is hard for us parents to take. Afterall, it is a sign of our own mortality and the relentness march of life and time. Dave Atherton

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  40. Margie says:

    This is a topic that is near to my heart…
    Thank you! Where are your contact details though?

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