What I Discovered on My Way to Planning My Son’s Grad Party [Bring Kleenex]

Great. I’ve gone and done it now. With restrictions loosening across our state, people are beginning to talk about more traditional celebrations again. Drive-by parades may soon be a thing of the past as graduation parties are on the rise.

I decided to follow the lead of others in the community and start planning a party for our high school senior. His prom was canceled, and his commencement ceremony scaled way back, so I’ll be darned if I can’t at least throw him some version of a graduation party while trying to keep within social distancing guidelines.

To get started, I tiptoed into the attic one morning around 5 am. Everyone else was still asleep so this was the perfect solution to my insomnia, a great way to stay busy without making too much noise (my family hates when I run the vacuum or unload the dishwasher before a reasonable hour).

I was reminded that my little boy still lives inside the handsome young man who graduated from high school this spring. (Twenty20 @Peerawat )

I looked through bins of photos and keepsakes in planning a grad party for my son

I had only intended to be upstairs for a few minutes—just enough time to locate a picture taken of our son wearing a cap and gown for his kindergarten graduation. It would be the perfect image to use on our party invitation and I knew exactly where to find it. At least I thought I did.

But three hours (and four supersized plastic containers) later, I had fallen deep into the rabbit hole. Notable highlights from his life (and ours) besieged me and seriously threatened my emotional state. Photos and plaques. Certificates and ribbons. Report cards and art projects.

The memories returned to me with a vengeance, like moths trapped inside a cedar chest after the heavy lid has been lifted. I laughed. I cried. I wondered how the time had passed so quickly. And in those moments, I wished so desperately for a time machine that could propel us back to when the kids were little, when the anticipated goodbye wasn’t so close that I could already taste it.

Tempted to simply curl into a ball and lay motionless in the attic for several days, I imagined the temperature rising quickly and my family members eventually having no choice but to send out a search party. So, I crossed my legs (crisscross applesauce as the kids used to say) and braced myself for the trip down memory lane.

Classic images from play dates, swim meets, field trips, Christmas mornings and summer vacations. A box marked “TREASURES” that contained a bird house carefully constructed one Father’s Day at Home Depot, a pinch pot that was supposed to resemble a chipmunk but looked more like Mr. Snuffleupagus, and the list of wrestling goals my son had taped next to his bed all through middle school as a reminder to always work hard. The lump in my throat gave way to a tidal wave of tears.

Why does revisiting these moments make me feel so sad? We’d been so lucky to have shared many happy times with our kids, and I’m grateful for each and every one of them. But even without a mirror, I knew the mascara I’d applied the day before was now streaking down my face (think Carrie Underwood on the cover of Cry Pretty).

Maybe it’s because he’s our youngest, our baby. But shouldn’t it be easier since we’ve already sent two siblings off to college and know what to expect? Yes, it’s awesome—and it sucks. We’ve experienced the angst in letting go, coupled with the joy of watching someone you love move forward into adulthood to pursue their dreams. However, something new and different is happening here—an added element that quite frankly terrifies me. Like it or not, empty nesting is in our immediate future. We better learn how to embrace it.

Anxious to get this mission over with, I wiped my face and picked at a few more keepsakes. A ticket stub from Disney on Ice. A first-place trophy from the baseball game when our boys made a thrilling comeback to beat the reigning championship team. A family portrait taken on a beach in Mexico (I look so young, and why had I ever tried coloring my hair red?).

The pictures I’d stumbled upon should have at least been organized and displayed in photo albums. When our daughters graduated, I’d had several colorful and creative scrapbooks to display at their grad parties. Why hadn’t our son’s pictures made it out of the Rubbermaid bins? I’d obviously been craftier once upon a time. Time had seemingly become more limited as our family increased in size. Either that, or I’d simply grown lazy. Maybe I could blame it on the digital age—who needs a scrapbook now when they’ve got an iPhone?

Did I do enough to prepare our son for college?

Besides, I’d learned there were more important things to do as a mother, but had I let him down there too? Had I exposed him to enough life experiences? Taught him the right lessons? Does he know how to sort laundry and clean a toilet? Will he send thank-you notes and be respectful of girls? I already know he’s a good person, but I can’t help wondering whether I’ve left something significant undone.

Exhausted by all the reflection, I readied myself to head back downstairs. But one last item caught my eye, a folded piece of manila paper decorated with bright-colored crayons and the words TO MY MOM ON MOTHER’S DAY scribbled on the front cover. Inside, I found one of those fill-in-the-blank worksheets that looked something like this:

Letter to me on Mother’s Day

ABOUT MY MOM:

My mom is ____ years old:

*He’d left this one unanswered. I’ve made it a habit to never reveal my age, even to my kids.

My mom is really good at: MAKING CHOCOLATE CHIP PANCAKES.

My mom wishes: I ATE MORE PEAS.

When I am at school my mom: WAITS FOR ME TO COME HOME.

My favorite thing to do with my mom is: GO TO THE ZOO.

My mom looks pretty: ALL THE TIME – BUT MAYBE NOT IN THE MORNING.

She loves me because: I MAKE HER LAUGH.

I love my mom because: SHE ALWAYS HOLDS MY HAND.

Affixed to the bottom of the page was a photograph of the two of us on his first day of school that year. I stared at his image, remembering his face exactly as it had been that day. Those big blue eyes filled with wonder and curiosity. Those pudgy round cheeks I could never stop squeezing. And that fresh buzz cut that he occasionally sports all these years later. His arms and legs may be longer now, and his cheeks covered in peach fuzz. But that adorable little boy—my little boy—still lives inside the handsome young man who graduated from high school this spring.

I will always see him that way, fresh-faced and ready to tackle the world. And even though his everyday presence will be missed while he’s away at college, and he won’t be around to make me laugh every day, one thing’s for sure:

It may be time to let go, but he was right, I’ll always be there to hold his hand.

More to Read:

17 Things to Do Before Your Teen Leaves for College

Best Grad Gifts for Your Teen’s Friends

Susan Poole is a mother, lawyer, non-profit executive, breast cancer survivor, and aspiring author. She left the practice of law to raise her three kids, all of whom are now young adults. Although Susan has written extensively in her profession for over 25 years, she recently completed her first work of fiction, a romantic suspense novel entitled IN-the-HOUSE COUNSEL. In her spare time, Susan enjoys yoga, cycling and traveling with her family. She and her husband live in Cleveland, Ohio and have been married for 30 years. 

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