The Graduate

My Son the Graduate

Staples High School, Westport, CT, 2011

“You are NOT wearing that. Not today.  Not for this.” I stood my ground. In a few short hours, my firstborn, Dustin, would graduate from high school. Dustin stood before me in shorts and a t-shirt. But not just any t-shirt. It was that t-shirt, the one you thought you’d put in the rag pile—and should have. The one with the collar so yellowed it looked, well, yellow. Unintentionally polka-dotted with small tears and faded ketchup stains.

“I’ll be wearing a gown over it. No one will see it.  You are so superficial. You only care about what other people think.”

“What difference does it make?” His heels were dug in as firmly as my hands were planted on my hips. “I’ll be wearing a gown over it. No one will see it.  You are so superficial. You only care about what other people think.”

But I would not be swayed. I attempted to enlighten him to the bigger issues of propriety and respect. He was having none of it. “This is about you trying to control everything I do.” He made each step up the stairs audible and changed noisily into khakis and a golf shirt. Who knew an old, soiled, T-shirt could thump so loudly on a carpeted floor? And he stomped back down.

We drove together to the school early; he, to join his classmates, and I, to reserve seats for the family in the sweltering field house. We rode in silence, and when he got out, he slammed the car door shut.

I secured the coveted close-in aisle seats, which would afford my family an arm’s-length view of Dustin as he passed in all his tasseled glory. My friends and I fanned ourselves with the programs containing our children’s names in print and reminisced about preschool days as we awaited the first notes of Pomp and Circumstance and the next moments of our babies’ lives.

I waved to catch his eye, which locked on to mine and shot poison laser beams of disdain at me—a direct hit—just before he turned away, scowling.

“Here he comes! I can see him!” which, at 6’2” was not difficult. I waved to catch his eye, which locked on to mine and shot poison laser beams of disdain at me—a direct hit—just before he turned away, scowling.

I turned to his father, to whom I was no longer married. He had fully backed me in the dress-code debacle. “Oh boy. Did you see that? He’s pissed.” He just nodded. “It’s OK.”

After the ceremony, in the courtyard filled with families photographing innumerable permutations of elation, Dustin stood stiffly, barely tolerating my embrace. “Are you really going to stay mad at me all evening?” I implored. “I’m not sure.” He glared at me.  He warmed up only slightly at our graduation dinner at the Grey Goose, a popular local restaurant where the principal and his partner happened to be at the bar. He enveloped Dustin in a big bear hug. “Well done, Dustin!” he said.  It was the first time all day I saw Dustin smile.

♦◊♦

Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, 2015

Nearly four years later, we sit in the glorious May Vermont sunshine. I have no doubt that my recently deceased mother has heeded my request and arranged for this good weather. She could always manage meteorological miracles and manifest impossible parking spots. I only wish she could be with us to see her grandson’s imminent graduation from my alma mater, Middlebury College. The clichéd “where did the time go?” applies not only to his four-year tenure here, but to the 35 that have passed since I walked across the stage he’s about to cross.

I gaze at the grey marble buildings just past the stage. I recently sat in on Dustin’s Buddhism Seminar in Monroe, where I had most of my Economics courses. Voter Hall is festooned in flags from every country represented by a graduating senior. Up the hill, Mead Chapel wears banners, its bells singing my emotion to everyone in attendance.

The experience has shaped him the way the cascading water rushing over the falls at Otter Creek smooths the stones over which it flows.

With hours to wait again, I try to prevent my mind from drifting back to the angst of that earlier graduation day. That child, now a man, has been through much in these four years. He has endured and overcome all of it with the might of the verdant Green and Adirondack Mountains that surround us. The experience has shaped him the way the cascading water rushing over the falls at Otter Creek smooths the stones over which it flows. This place has milled the grist of his joys and strife into a fine young man.

Suddenly my cell phone’s guitar-riff ringtone breaks my reverie, and I fumble to pull it from my purse. I’ve reserved that ringtone for Dustin, because his talent as a singer-songwriter is such an integral part of who he is.

“Hi, honey, what’s up?” He rarely calls me, and it’s 20 minutes before I know he needs to line up for the graduation procession. I’m not sure if what I hear are soft, distant alarm bells or Mead’s pealing. The news has not always been good when he has called. I have only just recently been able to hear his ringtone without both my jaw and stomach clenching.

“Hi,” he says. “How are you?” Is he really just calling to chat?

“Fine, my love. We’re in our seats. What’s up?”

“What type of footwear is appropriate for graduation?” he asks. “I cut my feet pretty badly playing softball and shoes hurt. Is it OK if I wear flip flops?”

“What type of footwear is appropriate for graduation?” he asks. “I cut my feet pretty badly playing softball and shoes hurt. Is it OK if I wear flip flops?”

I look up at the sky. Mom sent some intermittent clouds to cover the searing sun. I pause for a moment before I reply, taking in the enormity of both his caring about how he looks, and actually soliciting my input. Voluntarily. Without resentment.

“I love you, my Dustin. Wear whatever you want. Wear the new Middlebury flip flops dad bought you.” When we arrived two days ago he’d been wearing a pair he’d borrowed from his roommate. They were two sizes too small and covered in cartoonish bananas. “That would be so appropriate. But honestly, Dustin, wear whatever you like. Whatever makes you comfortable. I love you. I’m so proud of you.”

“OK, thanks, see you soon. Love you, too, mom.” And he’s off.

We have given each other The Gift of the Magi. We have walked different paths and come together in this moment, when we will soon both be Middlebury alumni. I put the phone back in my purse and look around. Seats are filling, people are milling, anticipation is building. The ceremony is about to begin.  But, it seems, the boy has already graduated.

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