The band is playing a version of "Pomp and Circumstance" as the all-male graduating class marches to their onstage seats. We parents stand at attention, pride and nostalgia churning our already hyperactive stream of consciousnesses. So many feelings, so little time to process them, to understand. Are we happy or sad or both?
Old enough to have a child graduate from high school qualifies a parent for admission to that group of folks who know that life is short--as the Irish, cursed with grandiloquent strivings, phrase it, "You'll be a long time dead."
This is a ceremony of separation, and the unique amalgam of loss and accomplishment, pride and sorrow, expected as it was, still defies comprehension. My son's separation from me overrides all ceremony.
The determination to relate to my son with the fullness of an open heart had time to germinate in my cautious, late-marrying mind. From his infancy on, I plunged in. I fed him with expressed mother's milk, with blendered pears and cottage cheese. I became familiar with diaper rash and Desitin, with poison ivy and Kwell. I was there when this boy grew up--in the sandbox, in the bath, at bedtime. I played creep mouse on his arm, buzzed him with the sound of phantom jets, pushed him in his windup swing, taught him to teeter-totter. His first word was favah , which meant dog. I listened to him read, "Curious George" to "Treasure Island," and marvelled at his ability to make up stories from the well of his own imagination. I cooked lunch and supper and washed his clothes down all the years.
As I nurtured him, I discovered how absolutely unlike anyone else he was--mine, but belonging to himself. He helped me turn up a hidden self in me also, eliciting a freedom, a playfulness that in the real world had chilled to paralysis. In his presence I could baby-talk and make up outlandish stories. And I could sing. I sang for him all the songs that fear and shyness had muffled, specializing in the oldies. "Forget your troubles, c'mon get happy!" And dance. One warm fall day, he, his brother and I, at a park complete with cannons, merry-go-round and real woods-living rabbits, competed by dancing for a first-prize cake. To the tune of ragtime "Cotton Babes," we danced our cakewalk over a 30-yard course, replacing the finale split with a jump into a ravine of crumpy leaves. Pre-sons I had lived in envy of dancers, particularly the spontaneous variety.
I taught him to throw and catch every kind of ball, coached his baseball and basketball teams--and oh, did I ever tell him, with a fierceness that deafened, how to play ball--and vicariously lived his glories and his defeats.
When I saw my son today, parading in with a bouncy lightness that extended to his face, I was transported to a dusty road 16 years ago. Heady with his new skill of walking, he let go of my hand and ran 15 feet ahead, turned and ran back to me with a sense of accomplishment on his face and an exuberant pride in his voice. "I do runninin, Daddy, runninin."
To emphasize the shortness of life, this graduation ceremony is marked with tragedy. Six days ago, a classmate was killed in a car crash. The boy's name is on the program, his place in line and chair are empty. We parents, sitting together, cry for the boy and this horrible loss, united in those unspeakable parental fears of teen-agers and cars and exposed vulnerability.
My dead parents came to mind. They buried their first-born son, drowned at age 8. My father's worry for me absented him from me. It was this memory of orphaning by worry that motivated me to father my son with presence and interaction.
The pomp and circumstance of this day telescopes the forces of loss, love. I fear that my longing for the past and love for the present cannot be contained. A mass is forming in my throat. I must act, do something. I stifle the urge to shout. I bend left and kiss my wife. The ceremony rescues. The headmaster calls the graduates by name. When he reads my son's name, I clap, shout, cheer, only to discover that emotion has dried the vocal chords to a whisper. "Hey, everybody, that's my boy, there. Want to see him do runninin?"
The ceremony moves on. The boys will be marching out. My wife hands me the camera. Here he comes. Raise the camera. He grins, a little boy's response, proud and shy together, as peculiarly his as his fingerprint. I snap the shutter. Once more. He holds the diploma open, more teeth and pride show. He is alongside me now. I look at my son looking me in the eye with a full-blown attention. He reaches out his hand and grabs mine. He squeezes my hand as he fills me with his look. There is feeling in his face, a warmth and depth unexpected in this public place. A quiet boy with me, silent with his feelings, especially the tender ones, he speaks two words from a place deep inside, deep enough to bring tears to his eyes. "Thanks, Dad."
He is gone now. His friends pass by and I see them, but only partially. I am drowning in a feeling of love that makes me want to cry and shout for joy, an experience beyond price, staging or repetition.
Goodby, runninin boy. Goodby.