A Bittersweet Moment
I’m not at all sure my son wants to graduate this week. Nathaniel was all done with finals the other day and I texted him:
Congratulations! Looking forward to graduation?
My phone buzzed after a pause.
Hmm, I’ll have to get back to you on that. Not really sure how I feel about it yet.
I have mixed feelings as well. Revisiting Kenyon’s campus through an online virtual tour as a warmup to writing this blog post might not have been such a good idea, I realized, wiping a tear from my eye.
Commencement two years ago, when our daughter Lydia graduated, was a lot of fun — as much of a celebratory culmination of four years as we hoped it would be (pictured above). My 93-year-old mother adored her first visit to Kenyon, encouraging the kids to push her around the entire beautiful campus — even the cemetery — in her wheelchair. My husband’s mother, at 87, nimbly climbed steps and admired artwork in the Gund Gallery. We were all proud and pleased. The academic open-house receptions, serving wine and cheese, were lovely and the professors and administrators were gracious. The Commencement ceremony and picnic lunch had to be moved indoors to the Kenyon Athletic Center, but that was barely a snag.
This time things ought to be just as much fun. True, the person who is arguably Nathaniel’s best friend (Lydia) can’t get there from Belgium because her graduate school professor won’t excuse her from an exam. But my husband and I and at least one of the grandmothers will be in attendance, and we’re as proud and pleased as we were two years ago. Families and friends of all the other Kenyon graduates will be there, wreathed in smiles and full of best wishes. The open houses at Nathaniel’s favorite departments will be gracious; the professors and administrators will be lovely. The Commencement and picnic lunch might just take place outside.
So why am I feeling this ambivalence? I understand the inevitability of graduation. After all, you start college and you finish college. In between, you learn how to succeed at college. Time has a way of marching on, and May 20, 2017 is just a few days away. The problem is that neither Nathaniel nor his mother has ever been a big fan of change. We’re good at ambivalence.
I have a photograph of myself holding him aged 18 months, standing in our kitchen the morning after returning from a visit to my mother’s in California. Little Nathaniel was wriggling unhappily and I was in my bathrobe trying to placate him. We’d come home late the night before, suitcases still packed, nothing in the fridge. For him, travel was difficult because it involved the unknown: different food, unreliable transportation and increased parental anxiety. Now we were home, so why the long face? Because we’d been traveling for two weeks and we had gotten used to traveling, and now we were home. Change.
This week, grown-up Nathaniel is leaving the home he’s made at Kenyon and starting a new full-time job. He’s thrilled about the job and relieved not to be moving back into his boyhood room. But in leaving Kenyon, he and several hundred other graduates leave the simplicity of schoolwork and grades (not easy but straightforward) and the predictability of dorm living (not elegant but convenient). They must learn to please bosses that don’t change each semester. They put distance between themselves and some pretty nifty friends.
This last celebratory trip to Kenyon marks the end of an era for us parents as well as for our children. We won’t have someone coming home every couple months to remind us what young people are interested in and to help with the dishes. We won’t be able to picture them sitting in classrooms, writing papers in the library, striding along Middle Path. On Wednesday nights, my husband and I won’t know that our son is holed up with the rest of the Collegian staff putting the paper to bed; we won’t be listening to his radio show on Sundays at 9 p.m.
A child moving further into his or her own life is not something for parents to feel sad about. Doing so seems ungrateful. Still, abrupt change isn’t easy for many of us, so don’t ask quite yet how we’re feeling. We’ll have to get back to you on that.