Instead I was part of a crowd of 1000 or more crammed into an un-air-conditioned auditorium, screaming and cheering as if we were fans at a football game instead of families at a high school graduation. Someone even blew a horn from the balcony, and there seemed to be a competition for whose kid could raise the loudest yells as he or she bounded across the stage, flashing a victory sign. A dozen years at hundreds of kids' soccer, hockey, and Little League games had left their mark. So different from my decorous little graduation of 38 kids in a hotel ballroom, or your older sister's formal ceremony in a church sanctuary. Yet the joy and pride were as palpable as the heavy, humid air. We were all there to wish our beloved children well, to accompany them to the next stage in their lives. The big one.
You and I had a little fight before you left for graduation rehearsal. I fussed over your unbuttoned collar and your pants dragging below your shoes; you said it was stupid and nobody would care. And you were right–your royal-blue cap and gown covered everything.
These kinds of fights serve a purpose, I think. They make teens irritated enough to want to leave the nest. If the nest is too comfortable, why go? But am I ready for this parting? You are my baby, my youngest. I've been in this parenting business for a long time, half my life. Your leaving means that part of my life is over. The rooms will be a little too empty, the house too quiet. I know you'll be back, probably with laundry–every parent of a college student jokes about the short school year. Your big sister has lived back home on and off during her still-unsettled life. But it's different to be the parent of an adult. I will always be a mother, but never quite in the same way.
It's amazing to me that when I look at you, tall and lean and "so much like a man," as Harry Chapin puts it, I simultaneously see you at every age you've ever been. All these images are superimposed. I see the infant with brown curls, the sturdy toddler who didn't talk much but lit up at anything with wheels, the school kid struggling with letters but totally comfortable with numbers.
I see the miracle of your birth, normal after a German measles scare. The doctor had recommended an abortion because he had delivered many babies with rubella syndrome–deaf, blind, and hopelessly brain-damaged–and felt this would be the best way. Your dad and I cried and cried. I had never prayed so hard, and miraculously this prayer was answered. I was led to the foremost rubella expert in the country, who told us unequivocally and in writing that the diagnosis was wrong. The fear never left until I held you. And here's a secret: I‘ve never, ever been really mad at you, because I am so grateful for your life.
All these thoughts came to me in the high school auditorium last night. And when at last after 350 names they finally got to yours, all the images merged into one blue-gowned figure marching confidently across the stage, smiling as you shook hands with the half-dozen school dignitaries and collected your diploma. We sang the alma mater, caps were thrown into the air, and I reached for those tissues after all.
What was that Latin phrase I learned so long ago? Ave atque vale. Hail–and farewell.