The night before my daughter’s graduation: 10pm. I’m certain that the hardest part is going to be the graduation ceremony itself, so I’m unprepared the night before when I walk into Rachel’s bedroom to say goodnight, and she’s curled in a ball on her bed, her nose red and her eyes swollen, sobbing, “I don’t want to graduate. I don’t want to leave home. I don’t want to leave my friends. I don’t want to go to college!”
I know I should tell her that it’s normal to be scared, and everything will turn out fine. But then I see the blue fabric bulletin board hanging above her bed. Pinned to the bulletin board is a photo of her on her third birthday, the tickets from the rock concert she saw two summers ago and her boarding pass from a trip to Ireland with the school chorus. Right next to that is her bookshelf with the entire Rick Riordin fantasy series that she read three times over. And suddenly I realize that she’s been growing away from me ever since she was born, which makes me start to sob right alongside her.
And I tell her I don’t want her to go away to college either — it was hard enough when her brother graduated two years ago — and I tell her I would start all over again with her as a newborn if I could, and suddenly I’m the child and she’s comforting me, which makes me feel even worse, because it’s all about me when it should be all about her.
So I tell myself I have to do better, and suddenly my husband walks into the room and sees the two of us sobbing and says, “What the hell…” and I want to laugh but I can’t laugh because what but I truly, truly want is for her to be three years old again…
…and it isn’t even graduation day yet.
4am. I can’t sleep, which never happens, I’m the best sleeper I know, so when it’s the middle of the night and I’ve been awake for hours and I finally give in and sit up in bed, I know I’m in for a bad time.
I hope my husband will hear me and get up too, and discover some unrelated problem like the roof just caved in, which will at least be a welcome distraction. But of course he just keeps sleeping and even my loud sighs don’t wake him, so I realize that I’m in this alone, and I leave the bedroom.
I walk downstairs and even in the dark I think can see the faded areas of the wood floors in the front hallway, which reminds me that I really should get around to re-staining the floors, which reminds me that I’ve been putting it off because it’s expensive and it’s not like we’ll be in the house for another 20 years or anything.
That’s when I realize that lately when my husband and I talk about things that need to be done around the house, we justify the cost more for how it will help the resale value rather than how much we’ll use it. Like the upstairs bathroom with the chipped vanity and stained grout that really should be redone except that in the fall, only our tenth grader, Alyssa, will be using it, and the way time is flying these days, she’ll be heading for college in about two minutes anyway. And as I walk around in the dark, I can’t help feeling sorry for the house because it’s emptying out and maybe would prefer a young family to make it feel useful again.
Yes, it’s four-fifteen in the morning and I’m feeling sorry for my house. I roll my eyes at how pathetic I am and decide that since I’m up, I will force myself to do something constructive. So I go to my computer and start to write a letter to Rachel explaining how much I love her and how much I’ll miss her when she leaves for college, and I plan to give it to her in, like, ten years or so when today will all be a pleasant memory. But I know I can never give her such a letter — why burden her like that? — so I walk back to the bedroom, and when I crawl into bed, my husband finally gets up. But it’s not my moving that woke him, it’s my loud, miserable sobs that I really tried to stifle, because I know what he’ll say, and sure enough he says it.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“I just don’t know if I can deal with this,” I say as I put my hands over my face, and he says, “Can’t deal with what?” I know he thinks I’m crazy, but now it’s time to get up for real, I can hear Rachel’s alarm going off, and the only thing that makes me think I’m not crazy is that I know my friends are feeling the same way I do, and were probably up all night too, thinking about their depressed houses.
9am. The girls are fighting for the millionth time this week, this morning because Rachel plans to wear her orange Forever 21 dress under her graduation gown and Alyssa plans to wear the black version of the same Forever 21 dress, and Rachel screams, “Ma! Tell her she CAN’T WEAR IT! It’s MY graduation!”
And Alyssa says, “But she’s wearing a gown over it!”
And Rachel shouts, “But I’m going to take my gown off for pictures with my friends!”
“But nobody will see us together!”
“I don’t want you wearing it!”
“You can’t tell me what to wear!”
And I can’t believe they still call me when they’re fighting, and it makes me sort of happy to be needed, but the problem resolves not when I step in, but when Alyssa finds out that most kids her age are wearing T-shirts and jean shorts anyway, so I feel useless all over again, and that’s what I’m feeling as we drive to the school and park the car.
We walk to the school field, and to the moms I know just in passing, I say, “Congratulations!” and “Isn’t this exciting!” and “What a great day!” and to the moms who are my friends, I say, “Doesn’t this suck?” and” I cried all night,” and they nod because they also think it sucks and they also cried, and truth be told, the moms I know in passing probably cried all night too.
And I make my way with Alyssa to the bleachers, where my husband and our older son planted themselves three hours ago so we’d all have a good view, and I thank them for coming early, although no doubt they’re extraordinarily grateful they were able to sit in the cool morning shade and peacefully read the newspaper on their iPads instead of dealing with me and listening to the girls fight about a couple of cheap dresses.
And the band starts “Pomp and Circumstance,” as the pre-teen in the row behind us whispers to her mother, “You’re crying already? You are such a LOSER!” and I’m determined not to be a loser too, so I put on my sunglasses and restrain myself from wiping a tear that is dripping past my lower lashes, so I am, after all, a loser too, but at least nobody is publicly scolding me.
And the sun is bright overhead and the breeze is cool and gentle, and the graduates are in their maroon caps and gowns, marching out of the school building in alphabetical order…
…and there she is. There’s Rachel, marching as determinedly as the first day she started preschool. Her smile is enormous, her pride contagious, and she is absolutely the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And suddenly I’m not crying at all, I’m just so excited for her and all that lies ahead for her, and so very proud.
So I squeeze Alyssa’s shoulder, take my husband’s arm, puff out my chest and lift my chin, ready to accept the universe’s thanks for giving it this amazing person who is now accepting her diploma and shaking hands with the principal.
It is a great day, after all.
Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a freelance writer whose essays and articles appear in a range of publications, including Consumers Digest, The New York Times, Parents, American Baby, and Westchester Magazine. Her essay on the trials and tribulations of shopping for dorm furnishings, “College Makeover: The Dorm Edition,” is in the (Summer 2014) issue of Westchester Home. She is the proud mother of three almost-grown children, and is happy that her children’s increasing independence is helping her find the time to finish her first novel.