Graduation offers a brief pause to ponder course of a son's life


One winter night when he was 9 years old, my son Erik, feeling overwhelmed by the complexities of long division, came to me and asked forlornly:

"Can I go outside and catch a cold?"

"A cold?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "something to keep me home from school till I'm old enough to stay home for good."

That was nine years ago. Long division eventually became algebra, which became geometry. Hang in there, I told him, echoing 10,000 other parents. It's just an obstacle course. Algebra doesn't exist in the real world.

I kept relishing each mathematical breakthrough. He kept hoping for lingering bacterial invasions to slip him unnoticed through entire grades. The other night, long division and other phenomena more or less conquered, my son got something even better than pneumonia. He got his high school diploma. I sat in the crowd just like every other parent: watching the kids on stage waving farewell to childhood, and cursing the theft of time, and doing an inventory of memories:

Erik at 2, leaning out the front door at dusk, calling out repeatedly, "I love you, too."

Bolting to the window, I looked into the street and saw no one there at all. It was just Erik, assuming the world loved him and announcing that he loved it back. The moment became his whole persona in a nutshell. Others wear cynicism as a defense mechanism; he's always given the world a blank check on his affection.

Erik at 4, spotting a helicopter in the sky, noticing its doors were open, and immediately offering an explanation: "They have to talk to the birds," he said, "to keep them from bumping into each other."

That was him, too, inventing himself as he went along, pulling explanations and escapes out of thin air and vivid imagination.

Erik at 9, when a kid up the street snitched on him:

"Erik spit," the kid said.

"Spit?" said Erik, feigning astonishment. "I don't even have saliva."

And then he always rushed off, without waiting for any adults to figure out whether to be angry or amused. Words became playthings, to be used in off-beat combinations whether he understood them or not.

Asked one night what he wanted for dinner, he replied, "an orthopedic chicken." Poking his sister once, he asked, "Melanie, are you going to sell your body to art? I'm leaving mine to literature."

Asked why he was grumpy, he explained, "It's the Reaganomic budget cuts." He was 8 at the time.

When did 8 become 18? A piece of each parent heaves a sigh of relief at graduation, but another piece asks: Have I given my kid proper instructions for getting through the next half-century? Is it possible to survive college, or the workplace, without yet having learned to clean his room? And we can only sweat out the next half-century to get back the answer.

My son always seemed breathless to get somewhere else, to get anywhere that seemed like higher, brighter ground.

I don't remember him ever walking. Always, he seemed to be racing the wind, either pedaling his bike around the neighborhood, or speeding around a ball field, or skidding off on skates he wore through four years of high school ice hockey.

I sat in the stands filled with pride at my son's courage and rage at any kid who bumped him even inadvertently. Erik, worshiping at the shrine of Wayne Gretzky, adored anything even vaguely associated with ice hockey, including the entire nation of Canada.

Ice hockey filled part of his constant need for speed. In early adolescence, he'd play a rapid-fire, free-form word association game. Give him a word, and he'd say, "That reminds me of . . . which reminds me of . . ." and he'd be off on a long, dazzling trail of words, phrases, people, situations, memories, a mile a heartbeat, a balloon letting out all its air, blipping this way and that, until he exhausted himself of all the stuff stored up inside that was bursting to get out.

Sometimes he seemed to be rushing in a hundred directions at once, unable to find his way on any of them. So he'd try a hundred-and-first. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and say, "It's gonna be OK. Give it time."

But he wouldn't stay still long enough, even when he wasn't moving. He seemed to shut everything out with the jangling of his own senses. I'd talk, he'd nod, but nothing seemed to get through.

There was something unarticulated that said: Can't listen to lectures right now, Dad, I've got a blind date with destiny any moment now.

If you race across the landscape enough times, you've got to bump into something out there, something liberating. There's got to be some accidental magic just waiting to happen. And so he would run, looking for some comfort zone, some place to fit in, some ticket to a place not yet exactly figured out.

So graduation becomes a kind of momentary pause on the way to the rest of our kids' lives.

You want to hug them one last time, and fill in any instructions they might have missed the last 18 years. You want to give emotional road maps, and a list of helpful names, and enough fruit and vegetables to get them through the next five decades.

And you know it doesn't work that way. What's done is done. They start to figure things out for themselves now, and all you can do is hope they were listening all those times when you suspected they were not.

That last hug becomes something unexpected. There's no advice that seems adequate at the moment, and so you mutter something else that seems appropriate for all of the 18 years of moments that preceded this one:

Thanks, kid.

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