Commence again

In July of 2003, my normally sanguine daughter took up crying jags. They came from seemingly nowhere, like afternoon storms on sunny summer days. I remember holding her 5-year-old self in my lap by the side of a pool, on our back deck, on the edge of her bed, rubbing her back with my hand to calm her ragged breathing. She couldn’t tell me what her tears were about.

Eventually, in mid-August, she could:

“Lindy is going to college, and I am going to kindergarten, and then I’ll go to middle school, and then high school, and then I’ll have to go to college, too, and then I won’t be able to live with you any more!”

Lindy, her older sister, was indeed preparing to leave us for college, and Grace was on her way to kindergarten.

“And you know I don’t like change!” she sobbed.

Me either, I thought, holding her close to me, full of my own feelings about all the changes bearing down on us.

As is usual, Grace was correct about how things were going to go: She did go to kindergarten, and middle school, and high school, and college. At one point–probably in early middle school–she told me she’d settled on Reed College as her preferred institution of higher education because it was both a good school and one that she could get to from our home on Mt. Hood using only public transportation, “so you won’t have to drive me.” She showed me the bus routes she’d need to take (she’d mapped it all out): a nearly two-hour commute one way, but that, she said, would give her plenty of time to study and read.

“You know, ” I said, “by the time you’re ready for college, you probably won’t want to live at home any more.” She assured me that I was wrong about that. She was too old for me to hold close the way I had when she was five and she had no need for me to, but I wanted to.

As it turned out, she did not go to Reed. She went to Georgetown, more than 3,000 miles from home. I suppose she could have traveled there by bus, but it has not been, in any way, an easy commute from our home to her school. Although she’d once been to DC on a trip with her grandparents, she’d never set foot on campus before she packed up her life into two bags she could take on an airplane and flew away with them. She did not choose this school because of a desire to be far from home. In the calculus of risk and reward, costs and benefits, Georgetown was the logical choice, and the girl we nicknamed Spock grew into a young woman who made all important choices from the head more than the heart.

The day she left, mine broke a little–with pride (what a brave thing she was doing!) and gratitude (what opportunities she would have!) and sorrow. Her new beginning was the ending of my most important and rewarding work.

As it turned out, once she left she never came back home to live. She got summer jobs in DC every year and made a whole life for herself there. It’s nice, sometimes, how we can’t know how things are really going to go. I don’t know how it might have been for me if I’d known on that day she walked out our front door that she wouldn’t come home to live again for her four years of college. Even harder than it was, I suppose.

Yesterday was supposed to be her graduation day. Her grandmother and I were supposed to fly east to watch her line up and march and get her papers and celebrate her work and accomplishments. Then, she was supposed to come home for a visit with her boyfriend before returning to DC to work this summer. Instead, she flew west alone, once again with her whole life packed into a few bags, to live with me at least through the summer, maybe longer. We can’t know for sure.

We can never know for sure, something I wish I’d understood when I was standing where she is now. At 22, I thought of life as being something like a novel, a cohesive narrative that could be broken into chapters, each one leading inevitably to the next. That is why it felt so important, especially then, to make the right authorial choices: each would create and eliminate a host of others. Choose wrong, and some beautiful plot lines (about love, children, work, home) would never be written.

Now I can see that if life is like a book, it is more a collection of linked short stories than a novel or an epic poem. It is filled with endings and beginnings, full stops and new starts and long pauses, episodes of living complete unto themselves. Some characters appear only once, while others drift in and out of the larger and looser narrative, sometimes at the center of the action and sometimes only at its periphery. The white space between one story’s ending the the next’s beginning is not empty: It is full of breath, rest, possibility, and actions so small or insignificant they aren’t worth noting–unless, suddenly, they are, at which point a new story begins.

My girl who hated change and clung to family and once charted her options in kaleidoscopic color-coded spreadsheets–a hedge against missed opportunities and lesser choices–has grown into an independent woman who still makes plans but no longer fits them into tiny digital boxes. I’m watching her lean into this moment in the world that is intersecting with this moment of her life, one that’s blown the boxes to bits in ways that are both terrifying and freeing, creating a horizon full of nothing certain but uncertainty and change.

The gift in this moment that has writ the future’s uncertainty large is that she can see clearly what many of us hard-working good students who once traveled through that profound transition between school and everything beyond school did not. We faced a similar horizon; we just didn’t know it. We looked out and thought we could see just how our stories would unfold, believed the major points of our plots were inevitable–or at least within our power to control. We didn’t pause long enough to see how wide open everything really was, to scan for roadblocks and pitfalls and possibilities of all sorts, to consider all the different destinations available to us. We just kept marching inexorably forward.

So, while I am sad, worried, and fearful about many things for all of our children, I’m finding a little something to be grateful for in this moment of unexpected endings and delayed beginnings and narrative threads that threaten to snap. What I might have given to have understood, much sooner than I did, that my most important choices were going to be about how to respond to plot twists I couldn’t control and never saw coming. I’m grateful, too, to know that my smart, strong, brave, thoughtful daughter will, as she’s always done, make the most of the gifts she’s been given, even the ones wrapped in the dark paper of this time.

12 thoughts on “Commence again

  1. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    She is just YOU. Inside and out.
    My goddaughter “graduated” from the University of Illinois yesterday. I decorated her porch and left a gift and it made me so happy to do so but it isn’t the same, is it?
    It is heartbreaking. No other word. Because college is where they work the hardest, deserve the pomp and circumstance so much more. It is heartbreaking for high school seniors too but college graduates just hold my heart right now.
    And you, mom. This is about you too. You raised that amazing, bright, beautiful in and out, daughter to do these big things. YOU deserved that ceremony as well.

    Sending you both so much love. She will go on to do brilliant things, I just know it.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…The BenchMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Aw, thanks, Kari. No, it isn’t the same. We were going to have a little mini-celebration yesterday, but we need to gather outside and the weather was rainy, so we didn’t. And I have not been able to get on top of things, so that contributed, too. We’re going to try for next weekend, but I think knowing it’s not going to be the same is part of why we postponed. In some ways, I think it will be better to do our little something not on the day we were all supposed to have a big something.

      To be honest, she never cared about the ceremony. She was just going to do it for my mom and me–but I thought that once she got to it, she might realize what a cool, big deal it all is. (I MAY be projecting my own graduation experience on to her.) My mom and I are much sadder about not having it than she is, which is a small comfort.

      Thanks for seeing us. I’m feeling for all the graduates. College graduation is unsettling enough–you’re leaving the only way of life you’ve really known, if you’d gone right from high school to college. To be making that transition into all of this? I can only imagine. I’m also feeling for our high school seniors, too, though. I think all those ending things–prom, graduation, senior parties, etc.–mean more to them than to college grads. And I really feel for those planning to go to college. It’s so not going to be what they expected. And should they even go now? Really, I don’t know how, if I were in any graduate’s place, I’d know or decide what I should do next. I’m grateful my daughter has a little space in which she can safely land, hang out, and regroup. We’re lucky in that way.

  2. Katr says:

    Congratulations to Grace!!! My SIL has a college and high school grad this year and my heart breaks for my niece and nephew but also for her (and you). Watching our children celebrate and be celebrated is a special kind of joy…I’m sorry you’re not going to have the kind of celebration you planned and she earned, but I hope having her home is sweet in its own way.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, it’s great to have her here. I will really enjoy it more when she’s not confined to two rooms. It’s just all so weird. But she (and all those graduating this year) will have a story that’s pretty unique. They’ll certainly remember it, I’m guessing.

  3. TD says:

    Rita, I’m glad to hear that your daughter arrived safely and your family is adjusting. May you both find joy in this time of reuniting and celebration of achievements. Congratulations to your brave daughter and to you!!

  4. Marian says:

    Congratulations to your daughter, Rita! It’s so unfortunate that graduating students are missing out on traditional ceremonies. I don’t have a graduating student this year, but I imagine schools everywhere are trying to come up with alternatives to mark the occasion. Whatever they come up with won’t be the same, but adaptability is most definitely a strength we’re going to need in the coming years.

    I love the metaphor of life as a novel. I think many of us, for one reason or another, get stuck at the sentence level. We can, perhaps, if we’re lucky, see the story we’d like, and we know on some level that we need to steer the plot, and yet we get bogged down by the words. I’ve always seen this as a failing (we’re told this, aren’t we? “If you fail to plan, you must plan to fail!”), but this post is making me wonder if I can reframe that and find a silver lining.

    Good luck to both you and Grace as you navigate the next few months. My older son has been home since late March. He had two co-op positions lined up, but the first was cancelled. We’re hoping the second will go ahead in July. In the meantime, we’re both just trying to take things day by day.

    • Rita says:

      Well, day by day is how all lives are lived, really. I think we just like to think we’re in control of the narrative and can choose the larger story. I know there’s some level of control, but more and more I wonder how much. And I don’t even mean that we’re at the whim of external events. Of course there’s that, but I wonder how much we really can’t control things we think we can–or, more important, should. A few weeks ago I was supposed to be working, but instead I frittered most of the day working on a post here. I felt like a lazy, undisciplined person. I felt regret because it only meant I’d have to do later what I should have been doing then. I felt like it was some kind of moral failing because it was a work day and I’m getting paid to work and the only reason I could do that was that I wasn’t actually at work. But it was the only thing I could keep any focus on. The next day, I realized how truly upset I’d been the day before. Something in me was compelling me to do the thing I needed to do to get through and past it. I’ve been paying attention to that for awhile now–what I can see after some time where I can’t seem to make myself do some thing I feel I should do. I’ve started surrendering to it, as I can, and that actually seems to work better. I’m just as productive as I would have been otherwise, only I haven’t made myself miserable by trying to force my way through something that’s just not right for me. I can see how that’s been true in the micro day-to-day, but also on the macro level. We find ways to get into or out of the things we need. I don’t know how much in control we really are.

    • Rita says:

      I hope it’s a really good one. The ones I imagined at 22 were so much less interesting than the ones I’ve actually lived.

  5. Katherine says:

    We live a few blocks from the University of Virginia, and I have taken my kids to the UVA gardens a bunch of times in the past few weeks. Every time we are there I see another fourth year in cap and gown, taking pictures. It is so sad and surreal. No chance to wind down the semester and do all of those “last time” things that graduates want to do. I have no doubt that graduates will pivot and adapt and move forward, but damn what a loss.

    • Rita says:

      Yeah, it is. So much loss the past few months, of so many things. And I know some are greater than others, but there’s sadness in them all. Nice to see you here. I enjoy checking in on you over in your space.

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