At this point, my son didn’t seem to notice which family members were present or absent. He settled onto the top row of the risers on stage since he was one of the tallest kids in his class. And then I saw it. I held my breath as his eyes scanned the audience. As inconspicuously as possible, I texted my ex: Where r u?! Immediately, he pinged me back: Coming over the hill. 10 min. I felt the tingle of jittery nerves run down my arms, the blood rushing from my head. I had long ago learned that in his world, 10 minutes meant 20. My dad was sitting next to me — my dad who would miss dinners because he was “lost on the freeway” though he had done the drive home from work a hundred, thousand times. My mom was on the other side of me — my mom whose overwhelming upset over my dad’s insensitivity once caused her to get in a fender-bender on the way to school, requiring a neighbor to pick me up. My tears turned from swelling pride to stunning anxiety.
It was soon time for my son to play with the band. As he walked down to the instruments, he looked at me and mouthed, “Where’s Dad?” My heart sank, but I held up two fingers and plastered on my most enthusiastic smile. I have always worn the fact that I’m a terrible liar like a badge of honor. But at that moment, I prayed my son would believe my fib (or my hope) that his dad would be there in two minutes.
I felt my cellphone buzz in my purse and looked at the text from my ex: I’m at school. Where is everyone? My stomach turned. He had not paid enough attention to know that the ceremony was at the high school, not the middle school. With shaky hands, I speedily typed: It’s at the high school! Get here now! My heart beat fast and hard as I watched my son skillfully play percussion with the band. I have been told to stay out of other people’s heads, a psychological venture that often results in my own anxiety and neuroses. But I’m a writer so trying to excavate other psyches is part of the job. I presumed to slip into my son’s head and imagined that this memory — his stellar performance at his middle school graduation — would be ruined for him. He would always recall that his dad was not there. I now struggled to control a raging weep, my body radiating with angry heat.
My son went back to his spot on the risers. Again, he scanned the audience. His wide smile was gone, and his eyes were soulful without a trace of glee. I couldn’t do anything. I could not overcompensate. I cried because I was heartbroken.
Right before the graduate names were called, my ex arrived. I saw relief wash over my son’s face. His smile returned as he walked across the stage to get his middle-school diploma, his dad’s loud whistle and whoop climbing over the audience. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this whole “moment” would be tattooed on my son’s brain — and not by his choice. It wouldn’t be the last disappointment for him.
I suddenly felt like an intruder and quickly extricated myself from my son’s head, a place I had no right to be. He is not me. His life is his own. I wiped my eyes and stopped crying. I smiled at him with every molecule in my body because I wanted him to know that I would be there for him whenever he needed me. I would ask him if he was happy. But he would not always say, “I’m good, Mom.” And then I realized — this event was most definitely a culmination.