My friend sat with her husband in a stadium crowded with of thousands of parents just like the two of them. One by one their college-educated children marched across the stage and picked up diplomas, given with a smile and handshake, before crossing to the other side and back to their seats.
Suddenly, my friend’s eyes filled with tears. Tears of tenderness. Tears of bittersweet sadness. And, to her surprise, tears of relief.
For the first time it occurred to her that she’d really reached the end of the “Hannah Project” they’d started 22 years before. She had, as the old saying goes, worked herself out of a job. The baby was grown. She had a good education and, most miraculous of all, had already been hired by a reputable company. There was a young man in the picture who gave every indication that he would eventually be a son-in-law.
For a moment she was wracked with sadness. The baby was gone. Then, for the first time, my friend realized that she wasn’t losing the baby. She was gaining freedom and independence and a second chance at making some of her own dreams come true. Without the day-to-day worries of parenting, she could focus on the dreams she’d put off to raise a child.
In the time it took a new graduate to cross the stage, she had an epiphany. She was graduating, too. Even as she grieved, she was already looking forward to having a second chance at life.
Wanting to share what she was feeling, she reached over, clasped her husband’s hand, and whispered in his ear.
“I can’t believe she’s all grown up,” she said. He nodded.
“It seems like she was born yesterday,” she whispered. He nodded again
“We’ve got a lot to look forward to,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“I know,” he replied squeezing her hand, looking like he was close to tears himself. “No more tuition.”
She told me the story over a cup of coffee, still shaking her head and laughing. She’d been overcome by the significance of the moment. By the idea that it wasn’t just her child who was moving into a new life; that she was being reborn, as well.
Her husband had more practical matters on his mind.
“I had stars in my eyes and he was seeing dollar signs,” she said.
Actually, when you think about it, that’s a pretty good description of parenting. From conception to graduation, raising a child is brief periods of rose-colored daydreams followed by sobering reality. Maternal glow and morning sickness. Lullabies and sleep deprivation. Adoration followed by frustration. The drive to give a child what he or she need to grow and thrive and the spirit-crushing responsibility of bringing in the cold hard cash to make it happen. And, finally, when they step out of the nest, regret tempered by the thrill of picking up the life you put on hold.
Of course, that first step is a big one. A few days after the graduation ceremony, over a late-morning homemade breakfast of pancakes and sausage in mom’s kitchen, my friend’s daughter sheepishly asked for a small loan to tide her over. Just until the first paycheck. It seems the deposit on the new apartment and all the other nickel-and-dime expenses of starting a life on one’s own had erased the balance in her checking account. And, she’d been thinking… To really get ahead she might need to go to graduate school.
I laughed and she smiled at me over her coffee cup.
“I know, I know,” she said. “I got ahead of myself.” Apparently, so did her husband.
My friend may have stars in her eyes but she doesn’t have to rush to decide what she wants to be when she grows up. Again. After all, it takes a little time to wrap up a big effort like the Hannah Project.
time and a few dollars more.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org