Not all moments are meant to be celebrated.
Some are meant to pass through our hands as easily and quietly as grains of sand.
It took my 13-year-old son to remind me of this truth.
He was graduating from eighth grade. Not just any ‘ole eighth grade but that of a very small, very private school for gifted children. He and his classmates were following in the footsteps of luminaries past. Us mothers of these future luminaries would be damned if we’d let that pass without pomp and circumstance.
I am not one to crow incessantly about my children’s accomplishments. Not one to join the other mothers in 14-hour decorating marathons for school events.
I work. A lot. I support my family, as a divorced mother. These bits tend to take precedence over helicopter mothering. I love my kids but they are learning self-sufficiency. It is just part of our lives since the divorce. I like to focus on the good part of this change and not the moments I miss.
So, as a small group of mothers made this eighth-grade graduation akin in prep work to Harvard’s commencement, I lost patience. Quickly. Not only were they playing upon every guilt-ridden thought single moms have about not being “there” (wherever “there” is) enough, they were making an already emotional event even harder.
My son was going to his local public high school in the fall. Not boarding school. Not the prestigious Catholic school downtown. Not the liberal high school south of the city proper. He was going, sans his good friends, from this tiny private school to a much larger institution.
It was the right choice for him, for our family. But it was hard. Hard for him. Hard for me. We just wanted to get through the ceremony, celebrate having survived a rough few years and be on our way.
He relished the class dance and sleepover at school before graduation. I had written, at the time:
“As I drove my son to his graduation dance this evening, I realized that this milestone, this leaving of middle school and childish things, requires me to again hold space for someone I love.
As I dropped him off, he had to (as usual) run back to the car twice to get things he’d forgotten. A borrowed suit jacket that needed to be returned to its owner. A sleeping bag for the sleepover that followed.
I watched him take the stairs up to the second floor two at a time. In my head flashed an image of the baby version of this hairy teen, learning to climb stairs. And I realized how very far we were from those days now. He ran, gleefully, familiarly, toward a night of dancing, pizza and games. With friends he has had now since fourth grade. His school, with just 32 children per grade, is one of close-knit relationships. And wonderful kids. Truly wonderful. I was happy he was getting the chance to make these memories.
And yet. Oh, and yet. I am left holding space. Occupying the space between his childhood and his manhood. Along with his gleeful bound up the stairs comes a still childlike love of Nerf wars and s’mores. But, encroaching more and more are hairy armpits, amped-up lacrosse practices where he is expected to man up and train like one, and grades that colleges will ponder for better or for worse.
I hold the middle space for him, allowing him to be childlike when necessary but coaxing a maturity I see he will need sooner than he knows.
It was the childlike bounding, the entering of a school so familiar and welcoming that he treats it as a home, the friendly shout from a classmate, the smile from a teacher, that did me in.
After he left the car and I could no longer see him, the tears flowed.
Holding space means you can’t quite go forward. But you know you can’t go back either. You must stay in the ever-changing present.”
There I was, in the ever-changing present, watching him relish the activities leading up to his celebration. The day of graduation, he and a group of boys he had grown to love did their usual. They played video games, hung out at the local food shack, teased each other mercilessly and with true regard. They acted as if no imminent separation were coming. As if one of them wasn’t heading to an elite boarding school thousands of miles away. As if others weren’t scattering to the schools of their choice where there would be new challenges, new hangouts, new friends.
These friends had seen him through tough times. Through his grandparents’ deaths, parents’ divorce, an aunt’s cancer. Through the screw-ups he perpetrated when acting out because of all of the above.
And while we all wanted to say they’d stay in touch, of course they would—the truth of the matter was, life would take them all in different directions. We were silly to pretend otherwise.
So, I did not want a commencement of Harvard proportions. Neither did he.
But there we sat. Him, on the stage. Me, in an audience seat. The movie rolled in my head, despite my reluctance to watch it. My son as Hermes, on the stage, during Greek Fest. As the reluctant groom in a shotgun wedding dreamed up during an improv skit by one of his buddies. As a dog in the eighth grade play. Trying his first crepe on stage during a school gathering in which French cuisine was highlighted. My delighted claps, groans and sighs as an audience member, watching again and again my eldest learn how to survive on stage despite his intense dislike of the spotlight.
It was all there, in my head. Next to me was his younger brother and my ex. As I stared at the watch on my ex’s wrist, I was taken back. Back to happier times. When that same watch sat on that same wrist but the man wearing it seemed completely different. Whole. Happy. Motivated. A part of our family. I felt if I could just stare at that watch and that wrist, maybe I could move back time. Maybe we could try all of this again—middle school, marriage, parenting. Maybe we could do it all better this time—all of us.
But I had to look up. Had to see my son almost fall asleep on stage (his reaction when the stress gets too overwhelming—he shuts down). Had to hear his cracking voice over the speakers describing what he had learned at this school, what he took away from it, as pics of him flashed on the screen. Had to hold back tears because if I started to feel it all, it would overwhelm me and I would sob.
After the ceremony, a reception was held. And then a dance for the kids, with their favorite DJ. I was so looking forward to this get-together for my son. One last celebration. One last time to do the Worm on the gym floor. A time for goodbyes.
He would have none of it.
Just a few minutes into the reception, he was pestering me to go. “Don’t you want to stay and say goodbye to your teachers?” I asked. “And dance with your friends?”
He answered me in short, gruff fashion and when I pressed, exploded.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you get it? Here’s what will happen tonight, Mom. The girls will all continue to cry, just as they have been all week. They’ll hug each other and talk about how sad it is that we’re all separating. And the guys will punch each other in the arm and say, ‘Dude, bros for life.’” Even though a lot of us won’t talk to each other again, ever. Or for years. It’ll be sad, Mom. Just more sad. And I don’t want to be here for it. I want to go home and go to bed.”
Years ago, the young mother in me would have made him stay. I would have surmised, in my best child psychologist voice, that he was struggling with goodbyes and closure. And would have been sure making him deal with both was the smart thing to do.
That young mother was untested. How little she knew.
I understood completely what he was saying.
After a month in which the mothers on the graduation committee had taken umpteen photos of him in the same number of places and poses around the school, he was done with “lasts.” The last shot of him in his favorite place in the school (the playing field). The last history class, math class, lunchroom table joke. The last time he’d sit with this group of boys and pretend it was just another normal day. That they’d see each other the next, moaning about the upcoming test or lack of sleep.
It was all going away. And so fast, really. Funny, how a routine of years can be erased within 24 hours.
So we left. With no fanfare, no letting fly the balloon in the courtyard bearing his name, no flowery goodbyes for those who had cared for and about him the past several years.
It was not, perhaps, our most elegant or memorable exit. We slipped out, quietly. In unassuming fashion.
Not every pivotal moment deserves pomp and circumstance.
Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is let them pass without fanfare. Realizing the moments we should have celebrated were those that came before. The average Monday morning math class, sitting next to a best friend. The Friday night pizza party in a buddy’s basement. The basketball practices that ended late and with a casual “See you tomorrow.” These were the moments that mattered. The ones that stick more than pomp and circumstance.
My son knew this and accepted it so much better than I did, that graduation evening.
When the child surpasses his mother in wisdom, fleeting as the moment may be, now that is something worth celebrating. Quietly.
Sans pomp and circumstance.