A couple of weeks ago, a memorial Mass for Michael was held here in Birmingham at the Cathedral. The bishop presided and offered a very nice, even charming homily in which he first focused on the Scripture readings of the day, and then turned to Michael, whom he remembered, among other things, as one who […]
The spring of 2000 was landmark madness. We celebrated three sacraments – Michael and I got married, Katie received her First Communion, and David was confirmed. And starting it all off, Christopher graduated from high school and drove off in his little gray Dodge Colt, off to Tennessee, off to college.
Six years later, we’ve been at it again. Not so many sacraments this time – only one – Katie’s confirmation two weeks ago, but plenty of graduations. Every one of my children except for Michael the Baby "graduated" from something, and since he’s not going to the sitter this summer and won’t be back until the fall, I guess he graduated as well. Without, mercifully, a ceremony attached.
Yes, the two oldest graduated from college the same year, Chris being on a six-year plan, and David on a three. David didn’t go through his graduation, but since he came down for Chris’ in Knoxville, I suppose he did in spirit. Both plans have their advantages and disadvantages. Chris, smart and sharp as a whip, struggled mightily in college, for a number of reasons, some of them personal. He went through some tough times, the only one of which is my business to share was the death of my mother, his grandmother in April of 2001, in the midst of his first year. To watch her decline and her suffering – and he did, since he was living in town and was around a lot – affected him profoundly. She was unique person whose tastes and style did not exactly match up to her 19-year old grandson’s, not surprisingly, but she understood him. I remember her watching him when he was probably 18 months old or so, and observing, "He’s going to have a hard time, that one – " because even then, there was a restlessness, an underlying, constant dissatisfaction with the way things were.
And somehow, in whatever it is they talked about over the years, and simply through the witness of her own strength and convictions, she had an impact on him. He discerned her intelligence and respected it. I am convinced that something about her – her spirit, perhaps – remains with him, prays for him still because this young man, with his history of piercings, his taste in music, simply can’t stand self-consciously "contemporary" liturgy, and stopped going to the student parish almost as soon as he got there, in favor of the Cathedral. I always like to say that he likes his church straight up. He says, "I like my church to be church."
And after that long day of her funeral in which he was very strong, late in the night, as he sat in his car, and I stood outside talking to him, he broke down and simply said, "It sucks that Grandmother died."
It was a little rough after that. And there were other factors, too. Girl troubles that hit him hard. Issues at work. And combine all that with the fact that he just hates school. Hates sitting in a classroom, couldn’t make up his mind what to major in – he wanted a career in broadcasting, but didn’t want to major in it, because by the time he had to choose, he already knew the ropes and didn’t want to deal with classes in which they were telling him to do things one way, a way he knew was inferior. There were times that I encouraged him to just forget it, if he really wanted to, and just put his resume tape out there and get a job. He had the talent, he has the people skills. No pressure from me to finish college, I promised. Absolutely none.
But he persisted, and finally, a couple of years ago, it all came together. I attribute it in part not only to maturity (and how many times did I wonder if much of this could have been solved if I hadn’t pushed him into kindergarten when he was barely five….), but also to a single professor who taught a course on, I think medieval Europe. The focus was on Augustine, and the guy knew his stuff and taught it straight up. No cranky modernist interpretations. Christopher did his paper on The Confessions. And something about the whole experience turned him on to school – the witness of that professor and Augustine both – not totally, but enough – and he started making plans, and he figured out what he had to do, and 2 years later, he’d done it. Graduating with a BA in Political Science – following in a small way in his grandfather’s footsteps, a grandfather whose support was another major foundation in the past few years – and a minor in history. If you had ever asked me…and it’s good he didn’t listen to me, isn’t it?
The extra time seems to have worked out. I won’t blog anything specific until things are signed, sealed and delivered, but an excellent job seems to be on the way in parts south of Knoxville, he’s moving his stuff this weekend, and I am not only relieved, but very proud. He is a different sort of fellow, but, I think, that dissatisfied personality my mother discerned 22 years ago may just have found some equilibrium – just enough dissatisfaction to keep him moving ahead and working hard, but not so much to send a clouds of doubt. He seems to know himself – and if it took six years – so be it.
David was on the three year plan. He graduated from high school here with, I think, 38 college credits, and skipped his freshman year. He’s one of those people who can, it seems, do anything academically. He settled on an English major (that was never a question, I think), but could have done anything – he did high level math and science in high school and never struggled once with it. His first year in college, he had high school friends who were engineering majors at Purdue IM’ing him for help in their classes.
But Joyce, Shakespeare, and Orson Wells would be where it was at for him. Now, I throw Wells in there simply because film is his passion and I really don’t know who he would list as favorites and models. He has gone back and forth about his own life for a while, and will continue to do so, I’m sure. He was all set to be a cinematic impresario, has written screenplays, wrangled deals with more professors than I can count to do films instead of papers for his classes – the ones which I’ve seen strike me as quite good – but what I’m sensing now is a turn to fiction. It’s a good spur for me because no way is my second son going to get a novel published before me. Hah.
Older son has given me his set of worries, second son just as many, in his own way. He’s not even 21 yet, he’s graduated with a bloody English degree and …now what? He’s going to take some time to simply try to work and write – trying to find a job that will allow him the time and mental space to write. I’ve said to him too many times – whatever you do, don’t go into high school teaching. It seems like the perfect fallback – out of school at 3, summers off, etc. But the fact is, it’s mentally exhausting, it’s stressful, it’s discouraging and the pay is so bad what happens is that you start off thinking, "I’ll just do this for a while," but then you can’t save enough to do anything else, and you end up..stuck. High schools are filled with folks who always meant to move on, but never actually did. Which means that high school faculties can be places of dark humor and burning resentments. Which is balanced out by the saints among them. So, as an aside, if you know a teacher, buy him or her a drink. They deserve it.
Who knows were he’ll end up – nothing I’ve read or discerned myself tells me that it’s a good idea for a 21-year old who’s finished college in 3 years all the while working around 30 hours a week a Burger King to walk right into an MFA or film school program. He has no desire to himself, either. I worry, of course – worry that in this in-between period he’ll get trapped somehow. Or game his way into blindness and carpal tunnel syndrome. But then I read his away messages on his IM profile, in which now, at just 3 weeks after graduation, he sometimes says things like "Writing time" or "Reading like an English major", and I think – well, here’s another one. Trust him. A kid who has the drive to do the IB program and work his tail off in every way through college will probably stay on the right path. And even be able to use the detours and learn from them.
But then there’s the month he’s spending in England later this summer. Alone. Which, of course, I encouraged. Much to my regret at the moment. Just call me mom.
I sometimes look at children in other people’s families who seem incredibly high achieving and just …so. And their families are just…so, as well. The children get their scholarships and honors and just seem cut from a certain crisp cloth. My children – so far – are not like that. There have been times, in the midst of the long, worrisome phone calls from one end, and the long, worrisome silences from the other ,that I’ve been tempted to rue that. My boys, at least, just don’t seem oriented to fit that bill and walk that road, and someimtes that seems like it would have been the easier road. Even as I remind myself what I’ve reminded them frequently – you never know what’s going on in other people’s hearts or behind their doors. The most outwardly perfect lives are often the most inwardly devastated.
Then I remind myself…who’s their mother, after all? I wasn’t valedictorian of my high school class. I was saluditorian, and what separated me from #1, my good friend Nancy, was, I think, a degree of perfectionism and being willing to put your all into things you don’t care about. I’m not a perfectionist. I’m distractable. I’m sloppy and just interested in too many different things. I’m not terribly self-disciplined. Who am I to expect them to be different? But actually, to tell the truth – they both are, because at this point, tI do believe they’re both more self-disciplined and focused than I was at their age. Or at least they seem to be operating under a few less self-delusions than I was. But then at their ages (averaging them out) I had a baby and was starting a difficult learning curve of my own.
Tonight, I dug up some pictures from when I was close to their age. I am engaged on this massive cleaning spree, and I was re-arranging some of my mother’s memorabilia, moving them from flimsy cardboard boxes to sturdy plastic, stacking up Latin and French missals in dark, dull-gold bordered piles, flipping through fifty-year old photo albums, names of people, almost every one of them gone, written neatly in white ink on dark pages, and out fell some other photographs, not quite so old. If only I had a scanner, I would show them to you. Christopher, age 3, long wild curls framing his red face, grinning madly, his arm wrapped around his poor brother David, who was probably about a month or two old, and whose face was the definition of the confused suffering of the younger brother already.
In the years since, what they have been through, things I know about and undoubtedly some I don’t. What did I think they would be when I took that picture? I have no recollection, except I’m sure I thought they would have smooth sailing and from the time they would be able to plan, they would, and the plans would be followed, and the path would be straight.
Well, it hasn’t been straight, because it never is. Their personalities emerged – one extroverted, the other introverted, one restless, the other calmer and focused – and they ran hard up against their own limitations, their failures, and the failures of others.
But now, on the other side, as I contemplate these now tall young men who are my older sons, I’m full of hope. It’s a completely different kind of hope I harbored when I took that photograph. It is wiser, it is more realistic, it is far more respectful of who they are, rather than of who I think they should be. They are not mine, they are God’s. God is working in their lives, it is His voice they must attend to, His whispers and nudges they must discern. But I have to say – this different kind of hope is not sadder, at all. Christopher and David are quite marvelous young men – creative and independent, sharply observant and self-aware. I think they are listening.
And they both still go to Mass, which they both like straight up, no chaser, no frills. One of them (I won’t say which) surprised me a couple of years ago when he’d evidently begun receiving Communion on the tongue. Neither of them will sing in church though, still, unless I glare. Harrumph. And they call and IM and tell me about their lives and neither of them ever fail to make me laugh. Boys, you are treasures. Be good to each other for the rest of the journey. You’ll need each other. You will.