An Open Letter To The New Graduate – Endings and Beginnings

Maya,

As I sit in the balcony watching, your distinct smile is visible from afar. You and 500 other students are about to receive your diplomas and, in the process, cross over from high school students to graduates.

Our house has been hectic this past week with all four of us coming and going: weekend call at the hospital (me), finishing up AP exams, dance practice, work hours, graduation rehearsals and a 5k added just for kicks (you). Our paths crossed briefly, at the extremes of early morning or late night. Waiting in the auditorium for your name to be called allows me to focus on what is finally happening. My vision blurs as tears form; a pop-off valve for my swirling emotions. I try to tease out exactly what I’m feeling, but the intensity is too much at the moment. They call your row and your name is finally read. I watch you walk confidently across the stage and receive your diploma.

And in the blink of an eye, high school is over.

The next hour is chaotic at best. I struggle, but finally find you in the outdoor courtyard amongst a sea of green caps and gowns. Looking for friends, you dart and weave through the crowd, with that frenetic energy you always bring to the table. I try to keep up, my iPhone at the ready, capturing static pictures of dynamic moments with your friends. As our family poses for pictures, the smile on my face and my arm pulling you close don’t project the complexity of my feelings. Pride, joy and excitement, mixed with a healthy dose of melancholy.

You are no longer my little baby girl.

I have been attempting to write a piece about you and your graduation for a while now.  Originally, it was filled with advice for my University of Wisconsin bound daughter. It had some good stuff in there. “Be yourself”, “Take chances” or “Be curious”.  But that wasn’t really about YOU. It was what I hoped for you. And in that sense, it was more about ME. That piece remains on my electronic desktop, to be continued at another time.

As I take more photos of you and your friends, I recall photos from the past. There is one in particular where you are dancing, having launched yourself off the ground, legs stretched perfectly parallel to the stage and your arms extended. Those dance pictures never cease to amaze. Moments in time captured at your zenith, before gravity kicks in. The raw force it takes to propel yourself into the air is captured in images of powerful muscles in your legs. But there is also a grace in your ability to channel it all into a movements of beauty. Force and grace. Maya, you are most definitely a force. And you often display a grace beyond your years.

I remember one summer day when we were at the local pool. You and a friend chose to pass on swimming, in favor of practicing your aerials on the grassy picnic area. You ran across the grass for hours, hurtling your body into the air, almost, but not quite rotating your body around quickly enough to stick the landing. Again and again. Persistent. Tenacious. Unwavering.  And then…finally…you did it.

You throw yourself fiercely into so much of what you do. When a classmate’s illness kept him from attending most of school one year, you demanded his desk remain in the room. When your principal announced a fund raising event, you wrote an essay for him, complete links to websites documenting reasons the chosen charity was unacceptable and suggestions for better choices. You have been a friend and ally for those struggling to find themselves or where they belong. You rehearse and practice your dancing for thousands of hours, despite turned ankles, irritated nerves and nails torn by dancing on pointe. And through it all you have made life-long friends, gained confidence in your voice through the power of inclusivity and found your passion for movement and music.

That picture of you dancing, frozen in mid-air, feels appropriate for this moment. With force and confidence, you have leapt into the air, away from high school as a new graduate. With amazing friends, an emerging voice and a love of dance, you are now defying gravity.

But I know as summer gives way to fall, you will come back down to earth, as a new freshman on an exciting college campus. And I know there will be tears. My tears. I am not ready for you to land.

You may be excited for your new roommate and living in the college dorm. For dance classes halfway up Bascom Hill. For runs on the lakeshore path and walks up State Street. For the 5th quarter and jumping around on football Saturdays. For studying late on a random Wednesday night. But that means that my little girl will not be living under my roof. I won’t see the rolling disasterous mess you call a car pull into the driveway. I won’t see your gluten free food packages or half eaten tubs of frosting left open on the counter. Or wake up in the morning to see you asleep sprawled on the couch. 

I think back to that day of a hundred attempted aerials. You were not to be deterred. You fell. Again and again. But you picked yourself up each time and went back to do that sprint into your jump, knowing the next one would be the one you’d land. Until finally you landed it. I watched you from about fifty feet away. Not really in your line of sight, but I could see you. Watching, in case you fell too hard or  twisted an ankle. Or to see you stick the landing. But you didn’t need me. You handled the adversity that day quite well on your own. And now, years later, you are both more skilled as a dancer and more capable and confident as a young woman. Ready to take on all the exciting challenges that lie ahead.

I am sure in the coming months I will struggle and try to pull you closer. Just as I am sure you will be pushing away. That will be part of the challenge this summer; your pushing, my pulling.

I know you are ready to spread your wings. I am just hoping for a little more time before you fly away. 

What Would You Do For Love?

What would you do for love?

That question is often posed during the dizzying intoxication of a new relationship. Answered in romantic comedies by driving cross country or hopping on some transcontinental flight, chasing down one’s true soulmate. It might mean moving to another state, postponing your career or donating an organ. These are dramatic and bold actions that do something in a positive way, consistent and affirming the depth of connection and magnitude of one’s love.

But what about your children? Like most parents, I would jump in front of bullets for mine. I have declared it out loud for all to hear and whispered in silence to myself; I would be that person they could always trust and count on to protect from harm and shield from pain. Without fail. End of story. Full stop.

But what if you need to cause their suffering?

What if you need to be the source of their pain?

What if you need to disrupt and alter their lives in traumatic and dramatic fashion? And in doing so, instead of protecting them from pain and suffering, you become the origin and cause; breaking all those promises once made.

Would you risk losing your child’s trust and faith in you?

Would you risk losing their love?

I am writing this in the present. But my mind is filled with the memories and emotions of the past…

***

A nightlight interrupts the darkness as I wake up in the big chair in your room having fallen asleep again reading to you before bed. Madison, the blond hair on your seven-year-old head is so short, poking out from underneath the covers. Your breathing is soft and your body calm. In stark contrast, Maya’s tangled curls cover her eyes as she sprawls on top of her bed, without any of the covers she kicked off long ago. I stay in the chair and just watch and listen. These moments made perfect by their silence. Love. Awe. Responsibility. They are overwhelming in a comforting way. I make quiet promises to you both, vowing to protect. To shelter. To be present. Always.

***

I am on a flight back from a brief 36-hour trip to Hawaii. In order to see first-hand where you are about to go, I actually spend more time on the plane than off. I am fighting back tears, knowing what’s looming ahead. The dissonance I feel is overwhelming. In the weight of my breath, the ache in my bones, the hesitancy in my voice. The impending betrayal of promises whispered over and over in your ear, while awake or sound asleep, is tearing me up from the inside out. My logical and clinical brain knows a change needs to be made. It knows the status quo is not sustainable. But logic and pragmatism are no match for my tortured, emotional brain, which is all too aware of the pain lying ahead for my son. I wish I could take it. Swallow it. Eat it whole. Let my core absorb and dampen it. But I understand the paradox. This intense and almost primal need to protect is no longer healthy. It is, in part, why we have arrived here.

***

There are still several weeks to go. Sitting on this secret. This emotional and traumatic time bomb will soon detonate. It has been looming for weeks. I wear an invisible shroud that barely constrains my emotions. Like water just before a boil, I appear calm. But it does not take much for a bubble full of fear to erupt, throwing me into a panic, before settling down. Then another, this time a burst of sadness, with tears flowing from my heart through my eyes before regaining control. My sleep disjointed. Work disrupted. I cannot compartmentalize. I look at you, knowing you don’t know. I’m desperate for another option but I have none.  I look at you, knowing that despite all we have been through, you love me as I love you. That you trust me, despite the fights and frustrations. We always end up back in a safe zone. But it’s a mirage of sorts, a false hope. De-escalation should not be mistaken for conflict resolution nor is it a path to healthy growth and change. So I have committed us to a different path. One of separation. And by doing so, I am betraying what I have promised.

I don’t know what will happen next, when the fear and pain I anticipate becomes your reality? How will you handle the additional injury, when you call for help, and I by choice, will fail to be there?

***

It is morning. My brain is heavy from lack of sleep and the weight of knowing this day has come. Two strangers are standing at our front door. My stomach is twisting, my heart hurting.  I let them in. Our exchange is brief, talking in muted voices. They are calm. My wife and I, despite attempts to project otherwise, are not. They walk into your room. Madison, you are asleep. The brown hair on your nineteen-year-old head is so short, poking out from underneath the covers. Your breathing is soft, your body calm. You still are, and always will be, that sweet boy I fell asleep next to, while reading in the big chair.

When we wake you, you quickly realize there are two strangers in the room. There is a flash of confusion in your eyes, not yet understanding what is happening. But I know. I am breaking my promise.

***

What would I do for love?

I was willing to risk my child’s trust and faith in me. I hoped, at best, that it would only cause a “fracture”. Something painful, but able to heal and repair and, dare I hope, even stronger than before? But I could not escape my fear for the worst; would this trigger an insult so damaging that it would be beyond repair?

What did I do for love?

I took a leap of faith. I made us jump, without knowing where we would land. My head told me it was the right choice. My heart just ached, unable to reconcile this emotionally incongruent action.

I am not sure how to frame it for others to understand. I am not sure that, after more than a year and half, my son understands. A change was needed. Not small. Not incremental. But transformational. My love, although well intentioned, had become constrictive and stunting. In order for growth and adaptation to occur, I needed to be out of the equation. But in order for that to happen, my son was flown around the globe. He had to have everything that he knew taken away. His room, his house, his dog. His sister. His mom and dad. He had to wake up far away and start over. By sending him away, I put his faith, trust and love in me at risk. I risked all that so ultimately, hopefully, he could put that faith and love and trust in himself.

My family has been on quite a journey since July of 2017, both together and individually. All of us have our own unique view of how we experienced and navigated that time. I can only speak cautiously for myself. My son is finally back home, and the internal dissonance, I once woke up to daily, is starting to dissipate.

I remember a fight, a few years back, when I yelled at him, explaining it was because I loved him so much. He screamed back in response, “Maybe you care too much!” At the time, I thought it was an immature and flip retort. Now I think it quite prescient. I don’t believe you can actually love or care for someone too much. But I do believe there are unhealthy ways to express that love. 

My journey has been, in part, to recognize that my son can endure both mental and physical challenges and tolerate suffering. Not surprisingly, by doing so, he has gained the confidence and pride that comes with that ability. He is able to cope with the consequences of bad choices and reap the benefits of good decisions. I learned to recognize that while a fierce unrelenting and unwavering love for child can be comforting, it can be constricting as well.

My son has been home for several weeks now. Our family was able to celebrate his twenty-first birthday together. His hair is a bit longer and he has a thick bushy beard that I have taken quite a liking to. We are still figuring out the feel and dimensions of our current relationship. Most of our interactions are working around the “edges” as we learn the contours of these boundaries. But there have also been some deeper dives into amazing conversations, with a depth and honesty that is new to us. We are still a little tentative and hesitant on some topics. I have not pointedly asked him how that decision, made eighteen months ago, has impacted his ability to trust and love our family. It still feels too direct and blunt. Asking him to articulate in words, what is probably a complex set of emotions, in the hopes of relieving some of my lingering guilt, would be selfish.

Right now, it feels more like we are healing a fracture than coping with unrepairable damage. After our leap of faith, my family’s feet are finally on the ground. And with each tentative step we take forward, a bit more hope replaces the ache in my heart.

The Big Chair

I miss when you both were little. The three of us with room to spare in the big chair.  That precious time before you would sleep, wearing soft PJ’s dotted in animal shapes. I preferred the ones without “footsies”, so I could feel those small, cold feet brush against my legs as you both wiggled and wriggled. We all stretched out in that oversized chair; your bodies lay against mine in the evening hours. Your skin smelled so sweet, like innocence. You were so small, I guess in the same way I must have been so tall. Giggles and laughs. I wanted to sleep. You wanted to play. You both insisted on reading again and again. Silly words, silly times. I needed to rest my eyes. Eventually words became mumbled, vision became blurred. Finally, we all succumbed to sleep.

I watched you play and practice. On baseball and softball fields. In the swimming pool or dance studio. Racing through to the end of my work day with an invisible clock in the back of my head, always present. Always ticking. Counting down the time left to get a glimpse. A chance to see you swing or pitch. Flying starts off the block and into the pool, or an aerial that tooky our feet off the ground and upside down.

We ate pancake breakfasts at home. Hands and mouths sticky from syrup with bits of melted chocolate chip on your lips. Or Saturday morning trips into town to Georgie V’s or Egg Harbor, with the promise of an endless cup of black coffee for me and a soon-to-be spilled hot chocolate for you.  We laughed and giggled. Drew pictures on paper placemats with blunt tipped crayons. Played with words. Spelling them, putting them in haikus or rearranging their letters. There were no iPhones to distract.

When I write these words now, I stop and pause. I lose track of time. I leave the present and go back to the past. The time between then and now keeps getting longer, marching on in unrelenting fashion. Just like the two of you. You grow. In age. In height. In independence. In defining yourselves.

That oversized chair is gone. One of your rooms empty for over a year. The other soon to be. Those too infrequent times when you both are home, sleep usually lasts through breakfast and well beyond. My time outside the hospital is no longer spent racing to watch you participate in life, but waiting for you both to share with me what it has become. I check my IPhone, hoping to catch a static glimpse of dynamic moments in your life. Through Instagram, snapchat or a text.

My perception of self is that I am still youthful and young.In body and soul. Until I wake up in the morning with pain in my back and knee. Or I see the gray in my hair and the lines on the face that looks back at me in the mirror. But most of all, I feel an ache in my core, over the passage of time when I think back to those days. The big chair. Chocolate chip pancakes.Running out a grounder on a dry, dusty field.

The ache turns to loss. And when loss turns to angst, I want to cling to you both. Grab you. Weave my world even more with yours. But that is selfish, thinking I can slow the pace of change by not letting you freely move forward in this world. I know that it is now time for both of you to begin creating your own. That chair has become too small for us all.

Solitude and Connection

bikecourse1

Two friends (younger than me by more than two decades) are training for the Ironman and I decided to join them for their first of two 40-mile loops. I had already decided to defer my own race entry to next year due to a combination of aches and pains, along with maintaining life-balance, which led to my bike lying dormant in the basement. About four weeks ago, I finally brushed off two years of dust. The few rides done between then and now felt like brief tentative coffee dates after a prolonged break up. So, I impulsively jumped at the chance to join these guys and recapture a bit of pride and youth.

Currently I feel neither proud nor youthful. But I am definitely feeling my age and rather stupid.

First, I spent all of last week barely able to move with a locked-up neck and back. Last weekend’s combination of ICU call and a Midwest water polo tournament did not treat me well. High doses of Motrin and a session with a chiropractor got me the go-ahead to start exercising again. But I might have neglected to mention I had the hills of Madison in mind for this weekend.

Second, I have been on my bike only three times this summer. The longest ride was two hours and covered thirty-two FLAT Illinois miles. Not hilly Wisconsin ones. This was like going from a lazy six-mile run on level ground to a hilly half marathon.

Third, if I was going to do this, I should have ridden at my currently slow own pace. These guys have been training all summer. Their youth, combined with the handicap of my age, makes their current speed out of my league.

Nevertheless, after waking up at four AM and driving to Madison under the backdrop of the morning sunrise, I am now in a world of hurt. Having been dropped relatively quickly by my faster friends, I find myself alone with my thoughts. My wheels spin over the rolling hills; mid-summer length corn lies adjacent to the road on either side. Soon, the corn soon gives way to an open field and a gentle breeze, a nice relief to the morning’s rapidly rising temps. I feel sweat from my brow trickle down symmetrical tracks on the sides of my face, reuniting at the tip of my chin before gravity finally pulls the salty drops from my skin. The wind drones in my ears as it flows through my helmet’s vents. The drive train of the bike generates a soft and subtle background noise with a pattern and cadence matched by my pedaling. Discomfort and stupidity no longer my focus, I am freed to look inward and reflect; an infrequent opportunity these past two years in the absence of long runs and rides.

Thoughts have been fluttering around in my head for a while. Why do I continue to create pain and discomfort through bikes rides and long runs? Why put my body and face between a water polo ball and the goal? Why am I going back to school? What do I want to achieve? In the relative solitude on my bike in the middle of Wisconsin farmland, I can stay and linger with these thoughts for a bit and connect some dots.

My daughter moves like me. She has never been able to sit still. She has learned over the years to channel that boundless energy into dance. Finding within the movements her passion and focus. My own need to swim, bike and run parallels her need for constant motion; my comfort in the pool surrounded by teammates mirrors her happy place in the dance studio. Her desire to make dance part of her life in college reminds me of myself at seventeen using water polo to connect and help find my way as a freshman.

My son is struggling with his future like me. He is in the process of figuring out what he wants to do moving forward in his life. What does he want that to look like and how will he actually make that happen? He reminds me not only of myself at the age of twenty-one, lost and scared about an uncertain future. But also myself now, at the age of forty-eight, asking similar questions all over again. I am probably not the only family member lying awake at night wrestling with the vast openness of the unknown. We both have our own paths of growth and discovery that we are navigating and working through.

The landscape keeps changing. There is a dairy farm now on my right and a field of alfalfa to my left. The bike route this time of year is usually quite busy and for most of the ride there was no shortage of riders around me. But currently I am alone, except for some Holstein cows huddled together, relatively motionless but for their tales whipping through the air. My bicycle and I start to battle a mild but increasingly uphill grade. My breathing turns more forceful and labored, moving the late morning humid air into and out of my lungs. The grade again increases, forcing me to grab the brake hoods, increasing my leverage on the pedals. I have some rough miles ahead of me, both on my bike and off. But instead of feeling stupid, I am filled with gratefulness and connection. To an observer, I am riding slowly up a hill in relative solitude. But in reality, I am not alone. Madison and Maya are right by my side.