Karen Heller: The tears (mine) of childhood

Graduation day is a joyous moment, but, oh, the sadness

Posted: June 11, 2012

Here's another lie people tell you: It all goes by so fast.

It does not.

Certainly not during the first few years of your child's life.

Those years are long, exhausting, sleep-deprived, and brain-cell-zapping, marked by too many plastic toys, cartoon shows, and runny noses. Which you wouldn't trade for the world.

Then it goes by so fast.

They're never home, or they're home but talking to friends through machines. They remain the center of your universe while you dance on the periphery of their galaxy, like some outer ring of Saturn. To them, you don't exist, except as a set of car keys and an ATM - and, eventually, not even as a set of car keys.

The ATM business never goes away.

To be honest, and this came as a terrific surprise, the teen years are far better than advertised. Teenagers can be nice. They can be thoughtful. Empathetic, even. On most days, though not necessarily in the mornings, they're better conversationalists than most fourth graders. Though you do miss the snuggling.

Our son, our first child, graduated from high school Friday. He is delirious, relieved, thrilled that this big, long opening chapter of his life is over. He can't wait to bust out of our home and move on to the next adventure.

His parents feel otherwise.

I'm not sure why such a joyous milestone in a child's life, one we all knew was coming, can make parents feel so sad and at loose ends. Every time someone congratulates us - for what, we're not sure - my nose starts to twitch, my gut sinks, a sure sign that I'm about to dissolve in a puddle of tears.

Happy/sad, someone called it, as I watched graduate after graduate rise to speak, laughing and crying simultaneously, a sort of marvelous feat that doesn't happen very often, the realization of being fully aware that something momentous is happening to you at that very moment.

Never complain about tasks you voluntarily take on, planning vacations or weddings. Parenthood is sort of like that. This is what we signed up for. This is the good stuff. At least that's what I tell myself every time my nose starts to twitch.

Independence is one of the great gifts a parent can instill in a child, encouraging risk and a collection of adventures that create a full life.

My family long encouraged independence. My parents left the Midwest, headed East for college, and never went back. In turn, they exhorted us to leave our home of Washington, D.C., and try new places, also an education, though my mother added one caveat: "Just don't head west of the Mississippi." Then my sister moved to Oregon for good, and our mother wondered what she had done.

Wishing myself to be more open-minded than my parents, every child's prerogative, I set no river as a boundary. Our son is attending school west of the Mississippi. And I wonder what I've done.

The Class of 2012 graduates at a time when college has never been more expensive - a grim truth likely to worsen for years to come - yet the job market remains exceptionally dreary, producing a phalanx of exquisitely educated waiters.

Then again, I've never known so many interesting, civic-minded, globally engaged young people. No one in my college class became a grade-school teacher, launched a DIY business, or traveled to distant places to help people in need. Instead, lacking ingenuity, we attended law school and business school and medical school (or went into the then-thriving field of journalism), only to wake up, a few decades later, to full-blown, midlife crises that inspired us to teach children, launch a DIY business, or travel to distant places to help people in need.

Many of these new college graduates are already smarter, more caring and worldly than we were at their age. Out of adversity comes far more interesting choices. So I can't wait to see what happens to our son and his peers.

Well, I can wait.

Because now, after shedding a puddle of tears, it is all going by so fast.

Congratulations. Just remember, from time to time, to come back home.

Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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