Knowing them less
Closeness and distance aren’t opposites
We were sitting on the couch when he got the notice. No cap and gown, no pomp and circumstance. Sam read the email on his phone, then heaved the weightiest sigh in the history of sighs. The quality of satisfaction and relief I heard in that sigh only comes along a few times in life, and only then if you’re lucky.
Sam had officially graduated from college.
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Though he walked in the commencement ceremony last May, he completed his coursework in December due to a semester off during the depths of the pandemic. The email notified him that the final grades were in. He was done.
I leapt from the couch and hugged him while tamping down the urge to cheer, cry, and hyperventilate all at once. Breathe, Asha, breathe. Make room. This is his moment.
I looked up into his stunned eyes (he’s a foot taller than me). “Let’s release all this energy into the sky, yeah?” Weird words, but that’s what came out. I often metabolize big feelings by walking. Sam usually declines my invitations to walk, but for once we were in the same mental place. “Yeah,” he agreed, and we pulled on our jackets and shoes — conveniently heaped in a pile on the bench by the front door. We headed out with no idea where we were going.
As I approached the end of the front path I remembered the spiced lattes at our favorite neighborhood cafe. “My treat,” I screamed, no longer able to contain myself.
Explosive maternal jubilation is easier to take when it comes with free coffee.
Rael and I celebrated with Sam over dinner at Gado Gado (magnificent food, covered + heated outdoor tables). As we scraped the last of the curry from our plates, Sam sketched an outline of his post-graduation plan. He didn’t offer much detail nor did he ask for advice.
Sam’s a private person. When he left for college four and a half years earlier, he drew strong boundaries around his personal and internal lives. Every step toward adult independence required a step away from his well-meaning-but-opinionated parents. We were no longer entitled to 24-7 access to his life, and he let us know it.
Rael understood, but I felt rejected, like something rightfully mine had been taken away. My involvement was his over-involvement. It took a long time to understand (and longer still to accept) that my interest came across as prying. My advice overwhelmed his internal navigation system and, at times, undermined it.
It took years, but eventually I got it and adjusted. Sam loosened his grip on the line because I finally learned to stop crossing it. What used to feel like enforced distance came to feel like loving space. These days, we ask each other for advice.
Over dessert, Rael and I answered some practical questions about rent and health insurance and used cars. The conversation was relaxed and full of laughter and gratitude and mutual respect. The crunchy, sugared fritters and coconut dipping sauce made Sam’s eyes roll. My gorgeous, intelligent, generous, hilarious son! Look at this man! I took mental snapshots, willing myself to remember everything about that moment.
He headed back to Minnesota a few days later. He’ll settle in, look for jobs, reconnect with friends and colleagues, begin constructing his post-college life.
Saying goodbye at the airport was the hardest it’s ever been.
In the car on the way home, I consoled myself with podcasts. I needed other voices to drown out my own mournful chatter. The Internet works in mysterious ways because, no kidding, this is what came up on my podcast player:
Kelly Corrigan and Julie Lythcott-Haims are two of my Internet role models when it comes to parenting and citizenship. Kelly is a memoirist and PBS host. Julie is the author of How to Raise an Adult and Your Turn, an “adulting manual” I casually left on the bedside table in Sam’s old room (now our guest room).
At about 35:00, Kelly talked about how her soon-to-graduate college-aged daughter drew a privacy line with her. “She just kinda, gently kicked me out of her life.” The poignance of Kelly’s story and Julie’s response caused me to pull over to the curb.
After a few minutes and a few deep breaths, I recovered enough to check the rear view mirror. No traffic.
I flipped the signal, then pulled out and headed toward home.
I encourage all of you to listen to Kelly Corrigan Wonders: The Humble Parent. There’s SO MUCH MORE there to think about and discuss.
Also: Sam gave me permission to tell this story.