Our family has been through some major transitions over the course of the past year, and the evening of June 3, 2010, not only felt like the culmination of all the changes we have experienced recently, it also marked the end of one long chapter of my life. It was exciting, fulfilling, satisfying . . . and both mentally and physically exhausting.
We don’t always know, at a precise moment in time, that we are experiencing the end of an era, a journey, an ongoing event, a relationship. Sometimes we don’t understand until later that a finite point in time was indeed that moment of finality. In other cases, the full weight of reaching the end of something bears down on us as the moment approaches and for a period of time afterward. In those circumstances, we have the opportunity to anticipate and prepare for that life-altering moment, but we can’t always predict how we will feel once it arrives.
So it was with my youngest son’s recent graduation from high school.
Obviously, like any proud parent, I looked forward to the evening when I would watch him march in with his class to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” wearing his silly-looking mortarboard and robe, and collect his hard-earned diploma. That small piece of paper symbolizes the culmination of twelve years (not counting preschool and kindergarten) of dragging his sleepy butt out of bed, getting him dressed, making sure his backpack held everything he needed for the day, and driving him to school on time (hopefully) before heading off to work. Along the way, there were also many days when I had to arrange for someone else to perform those parental responsibilities for me while I was out of town on business trips. When he was in elementary school, my mother was still alive and able to drive to his school. There were days when his father worked overtime, so he was excited about riding in Nana’s car to her house. Later, when she could no longer drive, he became well-known to the local dispatcher who took my calls for appointments with our local Dial-A-Ride service. She would say, “Oh, Matthew’s going to Grandma’s today!” without asking for the address. After my mother began residing in an assisted living facility and we moved into the house my parents built in 1959, that dispatcher congratulated and commended us for keeping the home in the family — and assured me that Matthew would be picked up and delivered to our new home safely.
Of course, along the way, there were countless hours of homework, including all those special projects that sent me scurrying for clothespins, yarn, Sharpie pens, glue, uncooked pasta, bubble wrap, bits of cloth or felt, shoe or cereal boxes, bubble wrap . . . even eggs for the annual eggstravaganza I dreaded most of all, the egg drop! Yes, both of my boys had to endeavor to cleverly conceal a raw egg in some sort of packaging that would cushion it against being dropped from the roof of the schoolhouse! Neither of them ever won that contest. And in Matthew’s case, I do mean scurry because for twelve years, he was the kid who never brought home the weekly newsletter or the daily bulletin. I wish I could count the number of times he announced, just as I was coming through the door after a long, stressful day at work, “Mom, my ________ is due tomorrow! Do we have any ______?” Since he usually needed something we did not have stocked at home, his father was dispatched on emergency trips to the store, while I stayed behind to brainstorm with Matthew about the assignment. Plenty of times I enlisted the assistance of his older brother who, fortunately, had completed the same assignment a few years earlier and could provide valuable advice.
I remembered and, for the most part, laughed about those times in the weeks and days leading up to Matthew’s big night. Of course, there were also a few lumps in my throat as I recalled some of the more traumatic and poignant times. In particular, I thought about how upset my mother was when she arrived at his school to attend his kindergarten graduation ceremony. Still en route, I answered my cell phone and heard, “MattieBoo is so upset. Are you on your way?” He was sitting quietly off to the side, away from the other children, crying. After some probing by Nana, he finally told her that he wished he were dead! By the time I arrived, my mother, being the expert maternal detective that she was, had discerned that poor little MattieBoo did not know he would see his kindergarten teacher after that day. He thought graduation meant that he would be forever separated from her! I knew that he loved Sue Hummel — as did most every child who was ever lucky enough to be her student — but the level of attachment he had formed to her and its impact on him was a complete shock. How could I have guessed that he did not know his first grade classroom was right around the corner from Mrs. Hummel’s room and, as a first grader, he would be able to visit as often as he wanted? After Nana and Mrs. Hummel assured him that she would see him every day next year on the playground, he calmed down and happily accepted his kindergarten diploma as my mother and I, both crying from a mixture of relief and pride, looked on.
It was a similar mixture of relief and pride that washed over me the evening of June 3, as that little boy — now 6′ 3″ tall with a very deep voice, broad shoulders, and a display of poise and humility that surprised and humbled me — gave his valedictory speech and collected his high school diploma with his father, older brother, friends, and a few other family members in attendance. And as I sat in the front row listening to him speak, I was acutely aware that I was experiencing the end not just of his high school years, but the most monumental chapter of my life so far.
I thought the “worst” was over. After all, Matthew celebrated his 18th birthday last November. I felt a little lost that day, because I realized that I was no longer the mother of any minor children. Although I joked about it with my friends, it was a bit of a jolt. And just a couple of weeks later, the full force of that knowledge came into play when Matthew presented me with a field trip permission slip. I looked at the signature line and realized that it no longer held any relevance for me. “Matthew, you don’t need my signature on this form,” I told him. “Mom, they said we have to turn the permission slips in tomorrow or we can’t go on the trip,” he replied absentmindedly while foraging in the refrigerator. (Some things never change, no matter how old they get.) “How old are you now?” I reminded him. Suddenly, he got it! “Oh, yeah! I’m an adult now! I don’t need your permission! Oh, cool!” he exclaimed, snatching the form away from me. Selective Service and voter registration forms arriving in the mail reinforced the point.
But there was something about reaching the last and most important milestone — high school graduation — that really caused me to ponder its significance for my own life. Not only am I the mother of two adults, I have now fulfilled my parental responsibilities! As I remind them (light-heartedly, of course) when they argue or fail to perform a household chore when requested to do so, “Hey, I am no longer obligated to feed you, so if you enjoy living here, get with the program! Otherwise, tell me where to forward your mail.” There is a sense of achievement associated with having successfully raised two boys, both of whom graduated from high school with honors, and are law-abiding citizens. Matthew was interviewed by the local newspaper about how it felt to be the valedictorian of his class. He said, “I feel really accomplished.” I confess that I couldn’t help feeling “really accomplished” myself when I read the article, which concluded as follows: “When asked who he would thank above all others for helping him become successful, the school’s top student said ‘definitely’ his mother. ‘She gave me a kick in the pants when I needed it and made sure I didn’t goof around,’ he said.”
Unlike some women who reach this juncture in their lives, I do not need to ask myself how I am going to fill the hours freed up by lessened parental responsibilities. I have so many interests and hobbies, including a renewed dedication to my flute studies, that I never worry about being busy enough. However, I have done some mourning for the little boys my sons once were — and will never be again — and the fact that they will never need me in the same way that they once did. I’m sure that melancholia rolls over every parent from time to time as they, and their children, get older. The happiest moment of my day used to be when I would sneak into the preschool or house and watch them playing happily, completely unaware that I had arrived. Looking up and seeing me, they would yell, “Mama’s here!” Toys and friends were instantly forgotten as they ran to me, wanting to be picked up and hugged! Matthew, in particular, had a habit of smooching my whole face as he grabbed it with his adorable, but very dirty, little fingers. I would love to have some of that dirt on my cheeks again. But I will settle for the bear hugs that remind me of just how much time has passed when I find my nose smashed into his shoulder as he towers over me!
There was little time to feel maudlin or wallow in sentimentality, however. After all, the new chapter of Matthew’s life as an adult — and mine, as the unconditionally supportive (financially and in all other ways) parent — began on June 7, just four days after graduation. That morning, he stepped onto the campus of the community college from which his older brother and I both graduated to attend the first session of his first-ever college course, Political Science. And that evening, I took him to purchase supplies. As he prepared his backpack for the next morning, I asked him if he had his textbook, binder, pencils, etc. Finally, he looked at me exasperatedly, and a blurted out, “Mom, stop! I’m not a baby! I’m grown up! I’m in college!” The rebuke stung for a moment. But then I realized that he was right. So I quietly went into the other room and left him to figure out for himself whether he was prepared for his second day as a college freshman, muttering to his brother, who overheard and was laughing, “Well, that didn’t take long. He’s only been in college less than twelve hours.” But his remarks typify the spirit of independence I worked to instill in him and will serve him well over the course of the next four years as he works toward the next milestone, another graduation. Another opportunity for his mother to feel proud, humbled, and at a crossroads of my own.
But in the meantime, he still asks the same question he has been asking since he learned to speak. “Mom, what’s for dinner?” So, in many ways, the old cliches are true. You never stop being a parent — and a mother’s work is never really done.