I was not going to cry. I just knew it. I always know I’m going to cry at an event when thinking about that event makes my eyes hot. Hot eyes are the prime indicator that I will cry. My eyes stayed perfectly cool when I thought about my son’s upcoming middle-school graduation. I had zero emotional attachment to the school from which my son was graduating or, rather, “culminating.” Eighth grade graduation is called “culmination,” but wouldn’t it be the middle-school years that were culminating and not my son? I might be wrong, but I’m going to call the event “graduation” anyway.
I had little personal connection to the school because my kids had switched districts just two years earlier. I had no particular bond with the teachers or administrators or coaches, only one crossing guard whom my son and I called “Black Ops Chuck.” Black Ops Chuck was so enthusiastic about ensuring all kids made it across the street safely that we were sure his periodic days off were spent secretly fighting global evil.
At our old school’s silent auctions, I always spent more than I should have on Coach for the Day so I could watch my son lead the bigger kids (i.e. his older sister and her friends) in calisthenics, wearing the whistle around his neck as the two coaches stood on either side of him like protective bodyguards. A round, little cherub, my son enraptured my heart with his wide smile, his big, alternately gleeful then soulful brown eyes and floppy mop of caramel-hued hair. My ex-husband once shaved off the coveted mop during a bout of the dreaded grade-school curse: lice. My ex called the coif a “buzz-cut,” but more than a few people looked at my son’s cue-ball head with cloying sympathy over the chemotherapy they were certain he was facing. Amazingly, my son, who made up silly songs like “Bowel Movement” and wanted to invent a toilet where brick walls magically slide up whenever you have to go, was fine with his shiny pate. His only complaint was that his head was cold. When I saw his “buzz-cut,” which was sent to me via text from his dad’s house, I cried. My eyes get hot just thinking about it.
But I wasn’t going to cry at middle-school graduation. I ironed his emerald green gown, to be worn over black chinos, a white button-down shirt and Size 11 loafers. This was a strikingly different uniform than his usual attire of rock-band tee, long plaid board shorts and Converse sneakers that seemed to suffer blown-out sides no matter how new they were, as if they couldn’t, for one minute longer, contain his perpetually growing feet. My son (who, as a baby, wouldn’t let me put him down ever), at 14, towered over me by six inches. He would pick me up and stomp me around the kitchen just for laughs.
Why a gown is needed for middle-school graduation I’ll never know. To me it’s overkill, like the trophies given out to every child at every karate tournament. It kind of takes away from the real thing. Despite my bristling, I ironed the gown — and I am a terrible ironer as demonstrated by the triangular burn on my son’s school band polo shirt. If you drop a hot iron on synthetic red carpet, do not, and I repeat, do not — place it on a white shirt.
The Big Day arrived without much fanfare. I asked my son if he was nervous. He grunted something akin to “no.” His formerly goofy patter had shrunken to the requisite teen boy one-word answers. A typical conversation went something like this:
“How was school today?
“Are you happy? Do you have anything you want to talk to me about?”
“I’m good, Mom.”
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.
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.