That last piece of information has always been the most important. I would look into his face and confirm that he was, in fact, good. On the morning of The Big Day, he was “good.” His only concern was promptness. My son was not a compulsive overachiever, but he was fastidious about a few things: his handwriting, the separation of the food on his plate and promptness. My own parents were late for everything — really, really late. I was the last student to be picked up at school, the lone lingering guest at a birthday party and the kid sitting on the dance studio steps after classes were done for the day. My compulsion to be on time (or early) for my kids is just one of the ways I’ve tried to right my own childhood through parenting. The other ways are equal degrees of overcompensation.
So I got my son to school 20 minutes early. We were afforded reserved seats because I volunteered on the Eighth Grade Culmination Committee despite the fact that I swore once my kids were out of grade school I would stop volunteering because I work and, more importantly, because my kids don’t really want me hanging around campus. They’ve been diplomatic about expressing their wishes, but the point was hammered home when my son, who would not let me put him down as a baby, pretended I was invisible as I stood three feet from him with another PTA mom, collecting used ink cartridges to help pay for the grad-night party. I promised him I would not chaperone that party, respecting his boundaries — another shining example of parental overcompensation.
Our seats were directly in front of the band section where my son, a percussionist, would be performing. I felt happy, but not the least bit sentimental. My dad and stepmom arrived well before the ceremony started. I was slightly surprised, but realized that this feat was solely due to my stepmom, who led the charge in their marriage. My mom and stepdad joined us in the nick of time, pleading traffic, though after suffering decades of L.A. gridlock knew how long it took to get from there to here. I stifled my inner grumblings and counted my blessings that my family was there to represent.
The only person left was my ex-husband: my son’s dad. He had been in Las Vegas on business and promised my son that he would be on time. It “might be close,” but he would be there. After 13 years of marriage, I learned that he did not know how to keep a promise. He promised that he would get work after he dumped the steady job he held when we first wed. He didn’t. He promised that our house remodel would be finished “soon,” even though it was his idea to hire one solitary contractor as a money-saving strategy. It wasn’t. He promised that mortgaging our home twice to pay for the remodel (plus his various entrepreneurial endeavors) was a smart idea, and that we would pay the loans back when his business took off. We did not because it did not.
The mountain of disappointments became devastating, and I finally chose to end the marriage. How could he say he loved me, yet break every promise. Despite my own personal grief, I clung to the belief that he truly loved our two kids. And after our divorce, he actually became a much more involved dad. Still, I did not want him to promise them anything. But he promised he would be at graduation. He was not.
I looked at my watch. It was four o’clock and at the first familiar chord of “Pomp and Circumstance,” I started to cry. Without the characteristic “hot eye warning,” the tears fell. I saw my son at the top of the aisle, wearing his emerald green gown and his wide smile, his big brown eyes simultaneously gleeful and soulful just under his floppy mop of caramel-hued hair. As he strode down the aisle in his Size 11 loafers, I tried to swallow the flood that would be impossible to tamp if I didn’t rein it in. My kids get embarrassed when I cry — they use it as one of the many opportunities to lovingly tease me. As I watched him, the sweet stickiness of sentimentality coated me like a candy apple that was mushy on the inside. But I didn’t want to turn back time like other parents had forever told me I would. I couldn’t believe how much I loved my son, how much I relished every single stage of his life. I wanted to tattoo the memory of this moment on my brain forever.