My Son Didn’t Think He Was Ready for College; Now He Knows He Is

A senior year is full of lasts. As my son started his, I told myself that I was going to absorb all the lasts this year like sunshine warming my face. I would shed some tears, but I didn’t want to grieve time passing. I wanted to celebrate the person my son has become. I thought this would mean being physically and mentally present in the moment for the last band concert, the last high school dance, and the last sprint across the finish line.

graduation 2020
They brought graduation to my son, to all the graduates. (photo via Wendy Miller)

I didn’t think the lasts would simply not happen. I didn’t think that our lives and expectations would be completely dismantled but for the Class of 2020, too many lasts are forever lost. 

We didn’t realize that senior year would end like this

On our last day of living freely, before this virus began holding us hostage, we woke up to a surprising dust of white outlining the leafless curves of the vine maple branches and sagging arms of the Douglas fir trees behind our house. My son invited friends over to play a board game called Twilight Imperium. Just the guys hanging out, eating pizza, and drinking root beer together the entire day, thinking they were celebrating an early start to spring break.

A snapshot image frozen in time. We didn’t know on that lazy Saturday, that by the end of the following week, like dominoes falling, the chain reaction of cancelations and closures would ultimately end their senior year.  

In our corner of the world, my son, husband, and I are together, isolated in our spacious suburban home. For now, we can pay our mortgage. We reach out to neighbors and thank those working on the front lines. I know it isn’t enough. Our swaddled world is affected, yes, but not devastated like some.

During the first weeks of sheltering in place, I often woke, and in the haze of slumber, unconsciously swallowed to see if my throat had a twinge of soreness. My son and I laughed about it when I confided my fears. He said, “It’s like when lice are mentioned at school, and everyone starts scratching their heads.” He has a way of easing my worries, but shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Larger disappointments have helped him get through smaller ones

He knows what it is like to not be able to breathe, making him keenly aware of the knock-out punch this virus can deliver. At his final cross-country meet, his time was almost two minutes slower because the crisp air, combined with running, triggered his mostly dormant asthma. He felt nauseous trying to catch his breath. It took effort to move his legs, and he eventually suffered muscles spasms that forced him to walk part of the route. 

A few puffs of his asthma medication helped him recover physically, but mentally he was crushed with his dismal finish and frustrated by his body’s limitations. Watching him lean into his suffering, knowing I could not fix it, or even kiss him like when he was little to make it better, hurt. This must be what it is like to parent an adult, I thought.  Now, I wonder, maybe that last big disappointment has helped him bear the smaller ones he is missing out on now, like his last band concert where it is tradition for the seniors to roast their teacher or his last track season, and of course, prom and graduation. 

When my son was young, he and I were close, but now he gravitates to his dad. His father’s job usually requires lots of travel, we now see him 24/7. My heart leaps up, watching them together. They tease, compete, talk politics, and fix cupboard hinges. A cookie bake-off is their latest manly one-upping. They will be cleaning the kitchen after dinner. 

One of them will ball up a napkin or paper towel and ask,

“What will you give me, if I make this basket from here?”

“Nothing, you can’t make that.” 

The challenger shoots the makeshift basketball into the garbage can. 

The loser finishes cleaning up.  Then, my son, who is always hungry, will rummage through the kitchen searching for dessert.

He will say, “Mom, do we have chocolate chips? I’m gonna make cookies.”

“What? You can’t make cookies,” says his dad. “My cookies are way better than yours.”

“No, way. Mine are soft and gooey. Yours poof up too much.” 

“Do you remember the secret ingredient?”

“Of course, I do. I invented it.” 

“What do you mean, you invented it?”

And so, the banter goes. In the end, I am the real winner with the sweet smell of chocolate chip cookies permeating the house. 

His senior year ends with a letter informing us he has enough credits to graduate. To fill the education void, we start a life skills class. I haven’t seen the floor in his bedroom for years, so we start there and then move on to laundry. I get a little pushback. He puts his dirty laundry in front of the washer and dryer, expecting it to magically clean and fold itself, arriving back in his drawers of its own accord.

“Remember, the laundry fairy no longer takes care of your dirty clothes!”

“Geez, Mom. I’m on a Zoom call.” 

He eventually runs out of clothes and does his laundry. I have the patience to wait it out–no need to worry about clean clothes when there is nowhere to go. Now he does his laundry when it piles up and he starts gagging on the sweaty sock smell.  

His next lesson, cooking, reveals a deficit in basic knowledge. Holding a can of tomatoes, he asks,

“Dad, how does this open?” 

“With a can opener.”

“Yeah, but how exactly?”

His father demonstrates, “You put the thing on the can and turn the handle.” 

“Oh.”

The yellow forsythia and pink camellias of early spring have vanished replaced by the scent of purple lilacs dawdling in the air. As a family, we’ve lingered longer, let conversations grow. We have always eaten dinner together, but during quarantine, we seem to have more time to sit and talk, instead of rushing to an event or hurrying off to do homework. 

My son says, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be ready to do the adulting thing in college next year.  You know, the whole taking care of myself thing.” 

“Really?” I ask. Patting myself on the back for our life skills instruction. 

“Oh, I feel good about it now. I think I can do it.”

“What changed?” asks my husband.

“I just need to get the hell out of here.” 

We all laugh, acknowledging that quarantine fatigue is real.

Will he be able to experience freedom?

And beneath the laughter, I wonder, will he be allowed to go to the other coast and have those first experiences of independence? Meet life-long friends who will transition with him to adulthood? Interact with professors who expand his mind with new ideas making him passionate about and ambitious for worldly pursuits?

For now, he is safely stuck in Oregon with mom and dad. I desperately want so much more for him than his current routine of sleeping until noon, waking to make himself a grilled cheese sandwich and then biding his time until the evening comes, when he can go online with friends and play video games until 1a.m. I force myself to stop contemplating September and decide to take each day as it comes. 

The school brought graduation to them

The doorbell rings. It is my son’s government teacher dressed like Payne Stewart. His old-time golf clothes are school-spirited green and gold. He is holding a megaphone and starts yelling at my son to get up—it is an early 10 a.m. My son, sporting a family cowlick and pajama pants, sheepishly appears in the doorway.

His teacher congratulates him on graduating and asks if he can put a sign in our yard that says, “Class of 2020, Senior.” I do my best to snap a social distancing photo. My son is reluctant. I am guessing it’s because of the just woke-up look. All 450 students in his senior class had a visit from a cherished teacher holding a sign on that day. The gesture touches our hearts. 

Now that we are not on the move, I have had time to gaze out the window observing the vine maple trees morphing from leafless, snow covered branches, to tiny buds, and now finally a cloak of green insulates us from views of neighboring homes. Next month my son will turn eighteen. Unlike my generation, who grew up in the shadows of nuclear bombs and an AIDS epidemic, he enters adulthood in the infancy of a new world suffering from a pandemic that has altered life worldwide in ways we are only beginning to fathom.

I hope he doesn’t dwell on lost memories of prom and graduation, but instead remembers the time spent with his dad baking cookies and fixing cupboard hinges. I hope he holds dear the importance of human touch and socialization now that he has experienced its absence.

I hope the injustices exposed by this disease call him to make positive changes.

Congratulations class of 2020—you are our new hope, not our last.  

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Wendy A. Miller has rediscovered her passion for writing now that her son is almost grown. Her essay, “Vegan Leather,” was published in Quail Bell Magazine. Once upon a time, she worked for a public relations firm and has an M.S. in Communications. She is the spouse of a Veteran and a cancer survivor. 

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